Author Archives: edmartinuk

Barcelona (Apr 2-6)

It was only a short hop via plane from Granada to Barcelona and it seemed like we were touching down in next to no time. There is a very regular bus from the airport, which takes about 20mins to get into the city, most of the trip is efficiently via motorway (rather different than the rather circuitous and windy route on small roads from Bristol airport into the city..).

Our hotel was called Casa Camper – it’s a brand apparently better known in Spain  for shoes, but they’ve branched out and opened a rather interesting boutique hotel in Barcelona (with another in Berlin). All rooms come as a pair; the bedroom is on the inside of the hotel, with a window to an inner courtyard which has plant pots running up a wall opposite, all ensuring a quiet night’s sleep. You also get a sitting room, which is over the corridor from your bedroom.  It has a patio door overlooking the pedestrian street on which the hotel is located, together with a table, sofa and a hammock – which pleasantly surprised me with how comfortable it was!  Another unique feature of the hotel was the the snack bar. Rather than equip rooms with expensive mini-bars the hotel instead runs a large open snack bar downstairs, in the area which hosts the breakfast buffet in the morning. There you can take your pick of a selection of pre-prepared snacks, sandwiches, wraps, desserts, crisps, soft drinks and with hot soup available on request; all for no extra charge. ūüôā  It was a fantastic service, which we wished other hotels would copy.

We had four days in Barcelona, but Greg had already realised that there were way too many interesting things to try and fit in during that time, so we covered what we could, starting with enjoying a small sleep in on the first day.  (Trust me, on the 40 project that’s a treat!). Then we headed out on a day of exploring Gaud√≠ architecture. We learnt a lot about Gaudi during our trip to Barcelona and by the end of it I was absolutely convinced that he was a total genius. He had a distinct style and I wouldn’t have wanted to live in any of his more extreme creations, but overall I loved his work and felt he was supremely creative, completely visionary and in many ways surprisingly practical. Our first stop was one of his early big commissions, Palau G√ľell (G√ľell Palace).  This was built as a town house for his patron Eusebio G√ľell between 1886 and 1888 and shows some early indications of his style, particularly in terms of the use of flowing lines and curves rather than just straight lines, and the attention paid to light. It has a very practical basement, which included space for storage and animal pens and very innovative drainage.

The ornate walls and ceilings of the receiving room disguised small viewing windows high on the walls where the owners of the home could view their guests from the upper floor and get a ‘sneak peek’ before greeting them, in case they needed to adjust their attire accordingly. The main hall is magnificent with a particularly spectacular ceiling which has small holes in it outside of which lanterns could be hung to give the appearance of a starlit sky. Rather curiously one wall of the room had two giant hidden doors that could be opened to reveal an altar and a tiny sacristy, so the room could become a chapel for mass and prayer.

We went to Mercado de La Boqueria (a local indoor market for lunch) and I had a small selection of local sausage and chips.  From here we visited the Palau de la M√ļsica Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music); Greg had found this through Tripadvisor, where it is very highly rated. What we hadn’t realised was that it is also very highly priced, so after buying tickets we were concerned that it was going to prove a disappointment. In fact, we found it rather splendid.  It was built between 1905 and 1908 in a Catalan modernist style for the Orfe√≥ Catal√†, a choral society founded in 1891.  The fa√ßade is a riot of fabulous ornamentation, sculpture, and decorative structural elements for which the Palau has become famous. The exterior of the building features exposed red brick and iron, mosaics, stained glass glazed tiles with inspiration of both Spanish and Arabic tradition.  Originally you would have entered at street level through arches supported by massive pillars, the central pillar being the ticket window, adorned with floral mosaics.

These days the main entrance, ticket office and cafe are located in a glass atrium extension.  We went on a tour of the building which passed though the main public areas, including the very scenic main theatre which had a rich history and the most phenomenal ornate chandelier of coloured glass representing the sun and surrounded by a stained glass choir of young women. The single stage is obviously not designed for theatrical production but for orchestras and choirs (as the decor would never allow for scenery). Above the stage is a magnificent organ and around the sides and back of the stage are 18 young women representing the muses. Each has a 3D sculptured bust with a lower body crafted as a mosaic on the wall and each has a different skirt, blouse, elaborate headdress and instrument.  We’d love to return one day and see a performance there.

From there we went to Casa Batll√≥ (also known as Casa dels ossos – House of Bones – as it has a visceral, skeletal organic quality). The building was originally built in 1877 by Gaud√≠ but in an unremarkable classical style with a basement, ground floor, 4 other floors and a terrace garden at the back. In 1904 Gaud√≠ was commissioned to remodel the house with Batll√≥ giving him free reign to do whatever he pleased hoping for something audacious that stood out; that didn’t resemble anything else on the street. The result is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Although Art Nouveau it is only barely recognisable as such. It has all the Gaud√≠ hallmarks of flowing lines, irregular oval windows, colourful mosaics of broken tiles and very few straight lines. When visiting we went into the main floor which would have been a stunning apartment with amazing curvy built in wooden furniture. We particularly like the little nook fireplace with seats to each side which looked like a mushroom when viewed from across the room.  There is a terrace garden out the back of the apartment (on the roof of the floor below) which has echoes of Parc G√ľell. We visited the roof with its lovely view of the city (even though it was a little overcast and rainy) and the floor below.  The loft space was vast – it housed services such as the laundry – and was formed of 60 catenary arches, which are somewhat of a Gaud√≠ signature.  Looking at the building from the outside the catenary arches form the ribs and shape of what looks like a dragon – the roof line with it’s crowning tiles looks like its backbone, and a small triangular window on the right hand side looks like an eye.  The “dragon” previously hid a room housing water tanks for the building, and it appears to be curved round a small tower topped with a turret and cross said to be the lance of St George (patron saint of Catalonia – Gaud√≠’s home) that has been plunged into it’s back.

Dinner that night was at a little place about 30mins walk away called Restaurant Petra, and we had an early table at their first booking slot at 8pm (it is Spain!).  They had their menus displayed on old winebottles, with dessert wines presenting the dessert options, obviously.  The food was very good, and the price was very reasonable indeed making it great value overall.

The next day was an adventure out of the city to the Benedictine Santa Maria de Montserrat Monastery, which includes the sixteenth century basilica and a fifteenth century Gothic cloister.  To get there involved several trains; first the underground, then a local commuter train and finally a rack railway to get up the mountain side (there was also alternatively cable car option for this final leg). The Cathedral itself is very impressive. It is apparently well known for it’s ‘black Madonna’ to which people still make a pilgrimage today, and for which there was a long queue the whole time we were there.  For us however the impressiveness came from the architecture, and especially the stunning location.  Monseratt is a small community perched high up on a flat section of mountain, with magnificent views down to the valley floor far away below us.  You can catch a funicular railway to viewpoints below and above the main plateau, which we did.

The Santa Cova viewpoint below was very quiet and we walked along a path to a church which was punctuated by various scenes telling the story of the life of Christ from birth to resurrection, one of which we had lunch beside.  The church itself was built into the rock and although small had one of the most unique and stunning (and somewhat scary!) locations that we had seen. The Sant Joan viewpoint at the top had a more scenic focus, with walks in various directions away from the top funicular station. The journey up Sant Joan funicular is a special and similarly terrifying experience, with a steep slope gradient (more than 65%), travelling up 503 metres in seven minutes. At the top is the Sant Joan chapel and a nature reserve, but we did not have time to linger long – just long enough to take a photo from the view from the balcony, which offered a vista both across the nearby heights and all the way down to the valley far floor below.

After a bit of sight seeing, we settled down inside the cathedral and waited for what we hoped would be a real treat.  The cathedral is known for its Escolania (boys choir) which was started in 1307, and who were due to perform in about 30 minutes. The choir comprises around 50 boys who live and study in the monastery.  During the time that we waited the cathedral quickly filled up and before long was totally packed with visitors.  Sure enough the choir appeared exactly on time and after a short introduction and bible reading from a priest (the price of the show I guess) the choir began and sang for a short but totally spellbinding time, their beautiful voices completely filling the church. Afterwards outside in the plaza were lots of international school children and we were delighted to see (and hear) them later taking part in a singing contest. At the end of the contest the church boys choir joined them in the plaza and sang some more – an angelic sound outside the cathedral which we could hear clearly from our vantage point over 100m away!  We took the rack railway back down from the mountain, as it turns out did many of the kids.  As it happened they all went down one end of the train and filled up from the opposite end that we headed for, so it wasn’t quite as noisy as we figured it might be.

We headed back to our hotel and changed to go out for dinner. Greg had planned a 2nd real treat meal of the trip, with a visit to Patka.  Patka is a slightly difficult dining concept to explain. It is a Japanese Peruvian fusion, a style called Nikkei, which came about due to the large Japanese community in Peru (Patka means “union” in the Quechua language of Peru). Patka is the creation of Albert Adri√†, one of the Adri√† who created the extraordinary El Bulli restaurant which had a legendary waiting list (and criteria for actually being allowed to go), his brother Ferran is a silent business partner in the venture.  Adri√† weaves his magic along with two phenomenal head chefs – Kyoko Ii (Japanese), a precise chef with incredible attention to detail who runs the cold kitchen and Jorge Mu√Īoz (Peruvian) a jolly, infectious man mountain who runs the hot kitchen.  Greg explained later that getting a reservation is a challenging experience. The restaurant does not list a phone number, the only way to get a table is via the website. Tables are released 6 months in advance, and with only 32 seats they go very fast.

We were lucky enough to be seated at the bar along the front of the cold kitchen, and so got to watch Kyoko and her team and the pastry chef weaving their magic. The restaurant is decorated in a traditional sparse style reminiscent of a Japanese tavern with beautiful pale wood furnishing, punctuated by wooden fixtures wrapped in bright wooden thread which evoke traditional Peruvian looms.  The menu is interesting; it is essentially one menu – called Machu-Pichu – that you progress through with no choices.  Though if you are not up to it they do offer a slightly abbreviated menu – the Fujiyama menu with fewer dishes.  We opted for the Machu-Pichu, all 33 courses (or so) and settled in for the evening.  Before the food appeared our waitress admonished us that once dinner started we would need to give notice to be allowed to go to the toilet due to the complexity of the timing of the menu(!).  And so the performance began…

And a performance it was. Each course was a small work of art almost too good to eat and just a few bites of indescribable flavour and texture; each a perfect combination of the food traditions of both cultures. Each course had its own presentation, crockery and specify type of cutlery – apparently there were so many different kinds of cutlery and different materials as these choices affect how things taste.  After a magical journey though food it was lovely to say thank you to Kyoto in Japanese (in our limited knowledge from our trip to Japan) and Greg ambled off to say thank you to Jorge.  Next thing I know I look up and he is in the hot kitchen with Jorge and his brigade chatting up a storm! (which he got a great memory photo from ūüôā )

We set off the next day to the old Gothic quarter (El Barri G√≤tic) and wandered around the streets a little, soaking in the atmosphere. It was a great place to amble around, and we took our time as we headed towards the waterfront. Our destination was the Aquarium Barcelona and on the way we passed by an absolutely huge private yacht. (I looked it up via Google to find it belonged to the Emir of Qatar, and was probably the most expensive yacht in the world!). Near it there was another fantastic super yacht, which was available to rent for ¬£100,000s per week, but despite its helicopter landing pad it looked small next to that of the Emirs…  The aquarium itself was reasonable, but ultimately nothing special. The main point of interest was the huge main tank with a moving walkway snaking under it, meaning you can stand still and admire the fish collection while being transported effortlessly to the other side.

After a fairly short time we decided to walk along the city beach.  Unusually Barcelona has an extensive shoreline and beach in the heart of the city and we walked a long away along it in the sunshine admiring the view. There are various sections to the beach which tend to have a different focus, so it was interesting to wander from the family beach, to the swimming beach, past the sports beach, along the fishing beach, etc. After a couple of hours and a short rest we gathered ourselves together and headed into the city for a late lunch / early dinner at Tapas24.  The chef is an alumni of the El Bulli, and served us good food but overall wasn’t as good value or as notable as some other meals we’d had.  After dinner we went to watch the Magic Fountain of Montju√Įc which is situated below the Palau Nacional on the Montju√Įc hill and was constructed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition.  Originally just a light and water show, music was added on the 1980s and now a musical performance takes places every half hour between 19:00 and 21:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. They are vibrant and great fun and certainly when we were there quite a crowd had gathered and everyone from kids to adults were really enjoying the show.

I should mention the hotel breakfast at this point. There was a nice variety of drinks and snacks available. But the highlight was a cook-to-order breakfast prepared by a wonderfully chirpy lady chef, who listened attentively to how we liked our breakfast cooked and turned out fantastic meals with perfect scrambled eggs and bacon done just how we liked it (slightly crispy for me and completely crispy for Greg!). Greg enjoyed chatting to her in Spanish and we look forward to seeing her again if we return (she had worked at the hotel since it opened). I also want to highlight that the hotel staff were very helpful indeed – a real standout. In particular they helped me to retrieve a raincoat from the Seville hotel that I’d managed to leave there – dealing with the somewhat unhelpful Seville staff on my behalf. And when it arrived after we left they posted it onto me in Bristol.  All on all we’d definitely return to the Casa Camper.

The next day started bright and early with a visit to Park G√ľell, home of many Gaud√≠ masterpieces. It is there that you can find the famous salamander (popularly known as “el drac” – the dragon), bigger in real life than we’d expected.  The park was built between 1900 and 1914 as a collaboration between Gaud√≠ and G√ľell and originally planned as a housing estate with homes surrounding a central park inspired by the English garden city concept. There were to be 60 homes away from the smog of the city with commanding views, but ultimately only two homes were built, neither designed by Gaud√≠. One was intended by be a show home, but was put up for sale and Gaud√≠, persuaded by G√ľell, bought it and it became his family home where he lived until 1926. It is now the Gaud√≠ House museum celebrating the life of the architect, and showcasing some of his furniture.

The park gatehouse (Casa del Guarda) at the main entrance was originally the home of the porter and is typically Gaud√≠ and is now home to an exhibition about the development of the park. In the park, at the base of the main staircase is an overhang, looking a bit like a stylised cave, which was built to give somewhere for people to wait for their carriages. Bisecting the grand main staircase is a vivid white structure with mosaic animals including the grand salamander, along with a small stream including small waterfalls and fountains (fed by the water tank under the room at the top of the stairs) which serve to cool the environment. At the top of the stairs there is a massive hall (Sala Hip√≥stila) the roof of which forms the huge terrace above. The space contains a vast number of fluted columns designed to catch the water from above and filter it down into water tanks for the estate. This grand open space was designed to be a market space and community gathering point.

Climbing the stairs on either side of the hall takes you up to the focal point of the park, the main terrace, the edge of which is a huge long bench in the form of a sea serpent.  The undulations of the serpent form a number of enclaves, creating a more social atmosphere.  Past that are gardens with a portico which was designed as a walkway with the columns holding up the roadway above. The roadways were put in to provide service access to the planned houses and the design was intended to keep the roadways discretely hidden from view. It is one of the most important examples of Gaud√≠ organic architecture and ends in a helical ramp which took us back to the entrance.

Our next stop was the Casa Mil√†, most commonly referred to as La Pedrera (The Quarry) because of how it looks. The building was originally intended to pay homage to Gaud√≠’s devout Christianity and was planned to feature a number of representations of the Virgin Mary and the archangels St Michael and St Gabriel. The design was not always followed during construction and the owners were fined by local government for numerous infractions including exceeding the permitted height, which resulted in the removal of many of the religious symbols from the plan. Gaud√≠ almost abandoned the project at this point but his priest convinced him to finish.

Casa Mil√† is actually two buildings meshed together, each structured round a courtyard which provides light to all nine levels.  The resulting layout is shaped like an asymmetrical “8” because of the different shape and size of the courtyards. The attic housed the laundry and drying areas, forming an insulating space for the building and simultaneously determining the levels of the roof.  One of the most significant parts of the building is the roof, crowned with skylights, 6 staircase exits, fans and 28 chimneys. All of these elements, constructed with timber coated with limestone, broken marble or glass, have the feel of sculptures even though they are an integral part of the building function.  Uniquely the entire building inside and out was designed as one, so the doors, furniture, windows and ceiling reliefs amongst other things were all designed by Gaud√≠ to be harmonious. Famously Roser Segimon (the wife of Pere Mil√† who commissioned the building) is said to have objected to the sinuous nature of the walls as it meant that there was no straight wall against which to put her Steinway piano. Gaud√≠’s response? “So play the violin”. Gaud√≠ wanted the place to be sociable and neighbours to get to know each other, so the lifts were on every second floor to force people to meet.  Built between 1905 and 1910, the building was sold after the death of Pere Mil√†, but maintenance costs and changes to the building resulting in the building falling into disrepair.  It became a national monument in 1969, but continued to deteriorate badly until the 1980s, until in 1986 it was declared a World Heritage site and in 1986 it was purchased by Caixa de Catalunya and restoration began.

We toured as much of the building as is open to the public, including visiting the roof, and the stunning loft including it’s 270 catenary arches – which look like the ribs of an animal when you look down the length of each wing. The arches are at different heights giving the roof above a gently undulating aspect.  The roof has the most amazing walkway on it, around and between the fabulous chimneys; completely unique and spectacular. The floor below has servants areas and laundries and down on the fourth floor we visited two apartments recreated as they would have been when completed by Gaud√≠. They are recreations as none of the original detail remained.  I was very impressed, and this building in particular was one which really felt different. After visiting a great range of many buildings and palaces, it gets hard for new ones to stand out, but the Gaudi creations felt very particular, with a distinctive style and atmosphere. It was a genuine treat to wander round, explore and experience.

We’d left the best to last however, with a visit to Gaudis masterwork, the project to which he devoted the last decade of his relatively short life (he was run over by a horse and cart in his middle age) – the “Bas√≠lica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Fam√≠lia” (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) most commonly known as the Sagrada Familia. It’s still not finished but already it’s an impressive sight. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI consecrated it and proclaimed it a minor basilica (as distinct from a cathedral which must be the seat of a bishop). Like many other Gaud√≠ works it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The church was begun in 1882 and initial construction was in a gothic revival style. Gaud√≠ assumed responsibility for its design in 1883 and the plans changed radically. We saw the crypt (which has a consecrated chapel) which remains in the original gothic style. When Gaud√≠ died in 1926, the basilica was between 15% and 25% complete. On the subject of the extremely long construction period, Gaud√≠ is said to have remarked: “My client is not in a hurry.”  After Gaud√≠’s death, work continued until interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936 when parts of the unfinished basilica and Gaud√≠’s models and workshop were destroyed during the war by Catalan anarchists. The present design is based on reconstructed versions of the plans that were burned in a fire, as well as on modern adaptations.  I would encourage anyone, even if you have never visited, to read about the phenomenally detailed design work in the building.

The central nave vaulting was completed in 2000 and since then work has focused on the Jesus Christ tower and the Glory fa√ßade. It is currently projected that for completion around 2026, the centennial of Gaud√≠’s death, accelerated by additional funding from visitors to Barcelona following the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Computer-aided design technology has also been used to accelerate construction of the building, which had previously been expected to last for several hundred years, based on building techniques available in the early 20th century. In 2008, some renowned Catalan architects advocated a halt to construction, to respect Gaud√≠’s original designs, however construction has continued extrapolating from the original designs in order to complete the work.  Given that Gaudi apparently left astonishingly detailed instructions on how he wished the building to be built, I really hope that it is finished faithfully to his vision, at which point I would love to return and see the final creation.  

The outside is a mixed beast, with a modern front on one side and a traditional one on the other. They are both very well executed and stand in stark contrast to each other. It’s inside though that really blew me away – the use of space and light is outstanding. As a photographer l like to try and pay attention to the design and to work out which are the most attractive sight lines in a building. Good cathedrals often have several, and I am used to selecting a few vistas to try and capture. Here it was a different view every few yards!  I took more photos inside this building than any other I can ever remember, and I doubt that they did the real experience full justice. It’s just magnificent, and I am told that the design is such that the light changes very noticeably through the day and deliberately changes the mood and atmosphere from morning to evening.

And so, we left for the airport and returned home from our most recent leg of The 40 Project.

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Granada (Mar 31 – Apr 2)

It was a long and hot train journey to Granada. The sun was out and the train aircon was a bit on the tragic side. We travelled through quite barren countyside consisting of many miles of orange and olive trees that looked like they saw little water.

We arrived at about 7pm with it still hot and sticky outside and headed to our hotel, which was a small apartment block with a spa in the basement. We had lots of space in our apartment, including a kitchen and living room as well as bedroom and bathroom. A definite change from some of the smaller hotel rooms typical in the big cities.

After dropping our bags we popped into a local supermarket. We often like to do this in the cities we visit. Not only is it cheaper for drinks like big bottles of coke, but it also gives some local flavour – it’s interesting to see the different ranges of produce and we are usually impressed by the amount of fresh and local food on offer, and in this case an especially vast seafood counter. We took the opportunity to buy some local bread, ham and cheese which Greg later turned into sandwiches for our lunch the next day.

We then headed to a local delicatessen, La Oliva, where Greg had arranged a special meal as a treat¬†that¬†proved to be rather different and very interesting. The proprietor Francisco used to run a restaurant, but now runs a shop with a sideline in intimate tasting¬†meals on some evenings. So the shop was set up with 5 tables, with about 20 guests in total. Everything started at 8:30pm and for the next few hours we were treated to several tasting courses of fine food including wonderful meats and cheeses, fish, olives and olive oil, almonds, soups, pates and more, along with paired wines. ¬†The entire experience was accompanied by Francisco sharing information about what we were eating, as well as anecdotes of his history and background and that of the local region. After a while conversation was flowing freely within the whole room, including between tables and by the end of the evening it was as if we’d made a few new friends, albeit rather fleetingly.

The next day started with a visit to the spa in the basement of our building. Greg had booked it for an hour as a private session, which meant that we had it to ourselves for that time. It wasn’t huge, but it was well maintained and had a sauna, steam room and small pool. We enjoyed having the place as our private spa for the period, finishing refreshed and ready to face the day.

Our primary target for the day was the Alhambra, a vast site of huge historical interest overlooking the city. We decided to walk there, so that we could explore Granada on the way. As you approach the Alhambra you travel down some ancient streets and on the primary approach, Carrera del Doro, we stopped to investigate the site of an ancient¬†bathhouse, El Ba√Īuelo, in a Moorish/Roman style. On the way I spotted some girls selling Segway tours, and couldn’t resist a quick trial – great fun!

On the way we had an interesting experience buying some ‘nun biscuits’ at Monasterio de San Bernado. These were a selection of biscuits suitable for tea, sold by the sisters of a closed convent. To purchase them you had to use an intercom to place your order, and then put your payment into a revolving mechanism. Someone on the other side would then operate the mechanism, so that your money disappeared and in it’s place a packet of biscuits would appear (followed by any change)! This somewhat unusual process allowed the convent to raise some funds via the sale of their goods without breaking their vows to stay cut off from the outside world. We rather enjoyed the novelty of the experience,and the biscuits turned out to be quite nice too!

From here we began the ascent to the Alhambra itself, walking up a path which took you up to the headland. The latter part of the path travels by the side of a stream and some beautiful plant life covered each walled side of the path. The Alhambra is a major tourist destination, which had already sold out of visit slots for the day. Happily Greg had, as ever, planned well in advance and we already had tickets thanks to the Internet. So we ate our sandwiches and soon our entry time beckoned. Inside I could see why it was so popular. The site was originally an old fortress in 889, but over time the site had been expanded by subsequent rulers. It was apparently rebuilt in the mid-11th century by the Moorish king Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Kingdom of Granada and was later converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada.

There were still the ruins of the old fortress, the Alcazaba, to visit, as well as three principal Nasrid Islamic palaces, built for the last Muslim Emirs in Spain and subsequently the court of the Nasrid dynasty. After the Reconquista de los Reyes Católicos (reconquest of the Catholic Kings) the christian rulers used parts of the complex before Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor in 1527 built the Palace of Charles V within the Nasrid fortifications.  Now a museum, on the outside it looks like a very conventional regal country estate, but has an amazing huge circular courtyard in the middle.  After this period it fell into disrepair for centuries before being rediscovered in the 19th century by European travellers and a period of restoration commenced (though some of the initial work was pretty ropey).

The main Nasrid Palace complex was very impressive and is actually three interlinked palaces, the Mexuar, the Comares and the Lion. Each is slightly different and of different periods, all built in the traditional style around an open courtyard. They had amazing decorative features and wonderful geometric shapes in their interiors, a direct contrast to their austere exteriors. There is excellent use of water, to help keep cool during the very warm summer and the tile work and carving is truly magnificent.

The Alhambra at its peak not only contained the fortress and palaces, but an entire town of buildings, including homes, shops, baths and a selection of minor palaces and towers.  These buildings, of which in most cases little more than ruins or excavations remain, were interspersed with small gardens and courtyards much of which can still be wandered through.

My personal favourite was the especially impressive Generalife, which was a totally fantastic tiered garden overlooking the main headland. It was the “summer” palace of the Emirs, just a few hundred yards away from the main Alhambra complex. ¬†It has some interesting features, such as the flowerbed lined dancing fountains in the¬†Patio de la Acequia¬†(Court of the Water Channel or Water-Garden Courtyard) which made enough noise to allow nobles to have private conversations. ¬†Beautiful open rooms, of a much simpler design than the main Alhambra, gave spectacular views over Granada. ¬†There was also a delightful shady staircase up to what was once the chapel with bannisters that were actually water channels allowing water to evaporate keeping the atmosphere cool. ¬†Overall the Generalife was quite breathtaking and really rather splendid.

The whole Alhambra site was a very enjoyable one to wander around, as the main gardens were also impressive and very well kept. It was a remarkable creation – apparently the architectural theme followed by most of the rulers who extended the site was that of “paradise on earth”!

For the geeks amongst us, the Alhambra is also a mathematical paradise.  The Alhambra tiles are remarkable in that they contain nearly all, if not all, of the seventeen mathematically possible wallpaper groups, a unique accomplishment in world architecture. It was this mathematical symmetry that inspired MC Escher work following his 1922 visit.  It is not just the tiles that show mathematical complexity Рceilings show the same, including one stunning three dimensionally textured complex carved one that was reminiscent of fractal patterning.

On our way back to the city centre we passed by another, much smaller, garden that sounded interesting but was unfortunately shut. So we headed to Calle Navas, a street known for it’s restaurants, for some dinner. We picked one somewhat at random and enjoyed a rather nice meal, which came quickly and included huge baked potatoes and lots of excellent prawns. We couldn’t stay for dessert as we had to head to a show we had booked – a Flamenco demonstration. There was a small audience for this show at Casa del Arte Falmenco, which consisted of three live performers. The guitarist was excellent – very impressive, as was the woman dancer – very sharp and fierce. The guy, however, was rather mediocre and to be honest less masculine than the lady! We suspect the guitar player agreed, as at one point we would have sworn he was pretty much laughing at the guy! All in all it was a fun show, from a city which has a rich history of traditional flamenco dancing.

Our final day was a wet one. Very wet. This didn’t make me happy, as I discovered that I had managed to leave my rain jacket at the hotel in Seville! Greg had originally booked a Segway tour that day with Tour On Segway, but was told it was cancelled due to the weather. So we headed to where we’d seen Segways the day before, which was another company (Play Granada). Sure enough the girls were out again, and we chatted about the chance of a tour that day. In the end we booked with them, after agreeing a 20% discount for the weather, before¬†relaxing and drying off in the comfortable lounge area whilst we waited for the start time. They loaned us helmets and waterproof ponchos and we it turned out that we were the only souls brave enough to face the elements, making it our own private tour! So for two hours we navigated our Segways up and down the steep streets of Granada enjoying a very interesting tour of the old town and some of the notable sites. Although the rain continued to be somewhat torrential for the first hour it then stopped, so we enjoyed the second half of the tour in sunshine which really lit up the city.

Shortly after we finished on the Segways we had to catch the airport bus, which took us to the flight to our next destination of… Barcelona!
(but not before I broke the suitcase open prior to baggage check, in order to liberate a pair of dry socks!)

Seville (Mar 29-31)

My main associations with Seville were those of oranges and of course the Barber! So I was curious to find out what the place was actually like.

Our train journey on the Ave high speed train from Madrid was good, but the final bit to our hotel was rather confused and it took much longer to get to hotel than it should have. It turned out that Google maps has the wrong location for Seville San Bernardo train station (what is actually a market was very confusingly marked as the station), which really wasn’t helpful (I’ve now reported it to them, though I have no idea how long it will take for them to correct).

So we ended up taking tram from San Bernardo to near Seville Cathedral and from there it was a short walk to our hotel. Though I will add that it’s a serious¬†suitcase killer (if you use the wheeled variety) as the streets are cobbled and rather uneven. As we walked passed it I admired Seville Cathedral, which dominates the streets around it even at night. It’s huge; absolutely monumental. It seemed like one of the biggest cathedrals I’ve seen, and is apparently the largest gothic cathedral in Europe.

Our hotel, El Rey Moro (The Moorish King) was quite unique – it used to be an old moorish house, and now is a small hotel with a set of individually decorated rooms arranged around an inner courtyard. We were in room 25, which had an antique looking bed, tiled floors, and moorish style furniture. It was late, so we headed straight out for some cheap tapas, and went to bed as soon as we could.

Breakfast was reasonable, and the member of staff looking after it was very friendly but didn’t speak much English. I asked for a couple of boiled eggs, and after a bit of helpful translation from Greg to the Spanish of “4 minute eggs” the lady smiled in understanding and beetled off to cook them.

Our first visit was to the Condesa de Lebrija Palace, which she bought shortly after her husband died. It was a very modern style accommodation, based on a Moorish style with Roman influences where we both felt at home – unlike many of the castles, palaces and stately homes that we visit we could imagine ourselves happily living there. The rooms were comfortable, with fireplaces plus underfloor heating topped by roman mosaic tiles, all based round a lovely open central courtyard,

From here we went to a very modern creation – the “Seville Mushroom”, more formally named the Metropol Parasol, but known to the locals as Las Setas de la Encarnaci√≥n (Incarnaci√≥n’s mushrooms, after the architect). It has dimensions of 150 by 70 metres and an approximate height of 26 metres and claims to be the largest wooden structure in the world. We were lucky enough to go on a sunny day and the design looked striking against a blue sky. We walked along the top pathway, and admired the impressive views across Seville.

After this stop we travelled back in time to the Case de Pilatos (Pilate’s House – as in Pontious Pilate), a large palace with clear Moorish influence, considered the first Anadulsian palace and built for the Dukes of Medinaceli.¬† Built around two open courtyards, it has very impressive roman mosaic tiles on the floors, and we bought the ticket extra ticket for the first floor and admired the large and very well decorated rooms. Like many large homes of the region and period, the family lived in the tiled open ground floor rooms in the summer with wonderful airflow. ¬†In the winter they moved upstairs to the much cosier, enclosed rooms on the first floor. ¬†There was also a splendid garden with some wonderful bougainvillaea.

We took a risk for lunch and stopped at an un-researched small bar and restaurant down a sidestreet, which we chose as most of the customers appeared to be locals rather than tourists. We ordered a selection of tapas, which are very traditional in Seville, and enjoyed some wonderful dishes including the apparently local favourite of chips, egg and ham – rather good! – and local fish in a tomatoey source – so good I ordered a repeat! As a bonus we also happened to be served by a rather good looking waiter. ūüôā

After lunch we walked to The Plaza de Espa√Īa (“The¬†Square of Spain”) which is a splendid plaza located in the Parque de Mar√≠a Luisa (Maria Luisa Park). It was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 and is apparently considered a landmark example of the Renaissance Revival style in Spanish architecture. It was busy when we visited, full of visitors and families enjoying the open air. The main square is surrounded by canals, on which a variety of boats were meandering up and down (and sometimes sideways a bit out of control!). The main buildings now contain government depts including Seville Town Hall, and there are many, very pretty and rather photogenic, small tiled alcoves dedicated to each a province in Spain. Parque de Mar√≠a Luisa has been described as ‘Moorish paradisical style’ and is said to contain a half mile of: tiled fountains, pavilions, walls, ponds, benches, and exhedras; lush plantings of palms, orange trees, Mediterranean pines, and stylized flower beds! They makes quite a sight and it was very enjoyable to stroll around in the sunshine.

We exited from the plaza and wandered through the greater park, heading towards the river. We arrived just in time to catch one of the regular river cruises. The ships were clearly sized to cater for peak season, and four of us off-season passengers enjoyed a space which looked to seat about 200! We did wonder if the missing 196 knew what they were doing when it started to rain, but despite the short, but vigorous, downpour we enjoyed a relaxing journey up and down the river complete with some commentary to try and help us make some sense of what we were seeing on the riverbanks.

That evening we selected the top tapas restaurant on Tripadvisor (Taberna Coloniales), which we’d seen with huge queues previously but we managed to get straight in as we were early (by relative Spanish standards anyway!). The food was good, and Greg particularly enjoyed a scrambled egg dish. That evening we enjoyed the hotel’s rooftop jacuzzi, which had an unexpected view of the top of Seville Cathedral.

We rose early the next morning, as we were scheduled to visit the Alcazar. ¬†It had been raining overnight but was now sunny with clear blue skies. The cathedral looked radiant in the sunshine and we got into a queue for palace just behind it, a few minutes before it’s 9:30am opening. The palace itself was very impressive, with clearly Moorish architecture making it interesting and quite different to our eyes. ¬†Originally a Moorish fort it has been remodelled and extended many times over the years. ¬†In the 11th century¬†the original palace was largely converted by the Christian King Alfonso XI into a Gothic one. Between 1364 and 1366 King Pedro oversaw the construction of a new Mud√©jar palace, the Palacio de Don Pedro, the current principal edifice. ¬†It is a fascinating set of interlinked buildings arranged round lovely plant filled interior courtyards.

In the 16th century the first floor was built by Carlos V with a combination of Renaissance and mudéjar plaster work.  We again paid for the extra tickets for the first floor, and found that the upstairs tour consistently purely of us, two french tourists and our security guide escort! There were a large number of rooms with some very intricate designs, and clearly lavishly appointed.  It is incredibly difficult to describe the fascinating, intricate, detailed decoration and beauty of the rooms.  The Alcazar is the oldest palace in the world still in use with the upper floor rooms used for a variety of state functions

Outside were large pleasure gardens with various sections which were very pleasant to wander through on this warm day. There were frequent fountains and other water features, to keep things cool. One of the fountains is a musical fountain which periodically through the day, using its water spouts to play an organ!  There are a variety of pavilions which were designed as places to take tea, or play games avoiding the direct heat.  Channels of water from the water features run through them to keep them cool.  One section of the garden was called the English garden, apparently dedicated to Queen Victoria, and for us was the most boring section!

The palace tour took us several hours, after which we headed to explore the inside of the cathedral, officially known as Catedral de Santa Mar√≠a de la Sede (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See)¬†which we’d admired so much from the outside. Built in the 16th century It is the largest catholic cathedral in the world, a title it took from Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church which had held the title for more than a thousand years. ¬†Taking more than 100 years to build, it was completed in 1506, then the dome collapsed in 1511 required extensive rebuilding (it collapsed again in 1888 and took another 15 years to rebuild). ¬†It was paid for by the entire parish clergy sacrificing half their income for the duration of the build.

It was quite dark on inside with huge main chambers and a very tall ceiling. There were lots of chapels alongside the sides of the main chambers, all dedicated to a particular saint. One unusual feature was a large courtyard just outside the nave, but within the main walls, which was a small orange grove. Inside the main church there was a large sacristy, and an impressive chapter house and treasury with a valuable looking collection. We also spotted a gleaming solid silver altar and ancillary pieces and much admired by visitors, the tomb of Christopher Columbus (and his brother).

Whilst Greg waited for me I climbed up the large tower, the Giralda, which afforded amazing views of Seville. The cathedral is built atop an ancient mosque and the bell tower is the original minaret of the mosque which has been converted. ¬†The statue on its top, called “El Giraldillo”, was installed in 1568 to represent the triumph of the christian faith. ¬†You could get glimpses from the various windows as you climbed up, and were then graced by a magnificent panorama at the top from a viewing platform which went all the way round the tower. There were also some rather fantastic looking church bells, which I suspect sounded very loud to those on the platform when they were rung!

For our final lunch in Seville we visited another restaurant for tapas (Casa Roman), again chosen as it seemed to be favoured by locals. It had an old fashioned atmosphere – there were hams hanging from ceiling, and the staff looked like they were part of the decor. The food was excellent with some of the best ham and best manchego cheese – aged, and served with membrillo – of the trip we’d had so far.

After a splendid lunch (including a second plate of manchego!) we walked back to the hotel to pick up our luggage, and then walked back to the Cathedral, got a final ice-cream (amazing Dulce de Leche – caramel), and caught the tram to San Bernardo station, ready to catch the train to our next stop of…. Granada!

Madrid (March 27-29)

We took another new mode of transport to Madrid – overnight train! Greg had booked a ‘grand cabin’ on a sleeper train, which sounded very plush, though unfortunately the reality didn’t match up to our expectations. We did start quite impressed however, with a well cooked meal in the restaurant car, including tasty steak which they managed to cook rare. After that we retired to our cabin; more bijou than grand, to be honest. In addition we found that the tracks were more juddery than we’d expected, so we didn’t get the best nights sleep.

We arrived quite early in Madrid, and it felt like most of the locals apparently were’t up yet – the city seemed mostly asleep still. We were quite centrally located, and yet at 9:30am the streets were deserted and the shops still closed. In fact as we walked past we noticed the opening times on the huge ‘Corte Ingl√©s’ department store (a bit like Debenhams) were 10am to 10pm. Definitely confirmation of Spanish climate and culture!

It was only a short walk to our hotel (Hotel Preciados) from a central tube station, down a pedestrian street lined with a few shops and restaurants. We checked in, dropped our bags, and headed out to make the most of the day. Our first stop was the Cerralbo House Museum, which was the home of a nobleman. He was quite a collector, and the various busy rooms showed off his wealth – including suits of armour, a chinese room, and a games room.

The Palace was designed from the beginning to serve a dual purpose as a home and a museum, housing the many works of art (thousands and thousands) accumulated by the Marquis and Marquess of Cerralbo and their children during the numerous trips they made all over Spain and Europe. ¬†The Marquis of Cerralbo donated this estate to the Spanish state, creating¬†the Cerralbo Museum so that his collections would endure “always together and be used by science and art enthusiasts for study”. ¬†It was all very ostentatious, and although impressive it wasn’t really to my taste.

We then walked to the Temple of Debod, which was an original Egyptian temple which was relocated (and rebuilt piece by piece!) from it’s original site facing onto the Nile, not far from the Valley of the Kings. The outer walls were mostly disintegrated, leaving just the impressive archways. The inner buildings were much more intact, and reflected the evolution of the temple which grew over the centuries as it was expanded by subsequent dynasties. It was an interesting visit, and a somewhat strange sight in the middle of a Spanish city park. From here we visited a small but famous chapel – Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida, with a wonderfully colourful and beautiful painted ceiling by Goya¬†whose tomb is in the chapel. ¬†As a result of the ceiling the church became a very popular site for tourists, so much so that an absolutely identical building was built across the road which is now the actual church and the original building became a¬†museum.

Next we headed to a cable car station, as our subsequent journey was to travel over a large valley that runs through Madrid and over the large central park (Casa de Campo). We enjoyed the ride, which offers great views of some landmark Madrid sights and a different perspective to usual. At the far end cable car station we alighted and then walked for about 30mins towards our destination – Madrid Zoo. As will be clear from our previous city visits and blogs, we enjoy a good zoo. We did, however, have rather mixed feelings about Madrid Zoo. Some of the older enclosures were small and fairly primitive in terms of design, so we felt very sorry for some animals such as the bears and the wolves. On the other hand others had much more room and were clearly newer and better designed, such as the Gorillas (who had just had a baby) and the custom built home for the Giant Panda, also with a recent baby. The restaurant was decent, and we also enjoyed the birds of prey show, which showcased a variety of large birds showing off their amazing flying abilities (which rather exceeded my ability to follow them and focus with the camera in order to get any good shots!).

We finished late at the Zoo, and headed back through the park to the cable car for our return journey. On the way back we were treated to evening light bathing the city including the Royal Palace and Cathedral, which made for a very magical view. It was pretty late by now and we were exhausted, so we grabbed some quick tapas in a local bar/restaurant and headed home to our hotel. We enjoyed a soaking from the huge overhead shower-head and fell to sleep early.

We allowed ourselves a small sleep in the next day, and headed down to breakfast. It had a good range overall, including a huge amount of pastries and sweet things, but not always best quality compared to many places we have stayed. Our first stop was the Teatro Real (Royal Opera House), where we wanted to join an interesting sounding tour. Rather than opt for the standard tour or the costume tour, Greg had selected the behind-the-scenes technical tour, which turned out to be fascinating. There were only 6 of us on the tour, including the two guides, another opera house employee and her friend who worked in another theatre! Of the two guides one was a member of the opera house technical staff and he was clearly delighted to be able to share his world with guests, and he obviously had a genuine love of his job and environment. The technical capabilities of the opera house were truly astounding, with vast behind-the-scenes areas (the lift had 22 floors!) and our tour ranged from the cavernous basement staging areas (with hydraulic platforms that could lift trucks) right up to the lighting and lifting rigs in the rafters, where we had to be careful to secure loose objects as anything dropping from that height would be life threatening to anyone below!

Astoundingly they can build 3 complete stage sets for different productions and stash them in the cavernous basements ready to be rolled out in just minutes.  This means that unlike many theatres they do not have to have a run of one production for several weeks, they can stage several different productions in the same week, or even on the same day.  So for example there was a huge, complex set when we were there (a closed set, meaning it had a visible ceiling, depicting a cave), but they were going to roll it out of the way intact to make space for a complete orchestra for one night.  It also means that there is pretty much no need for dark nights when they are changing productions. The gigantic fly tower also allowed for lighting rigs for multiple productions to be in place at once, with the stage depth giving space to set up a brand new lighting scheme for a new production while an existing show was playing and they could simply be moved forward (and the existing ones moved back) as necessary.  The rigs were very versatile with the ability to be used to fly in scenery, or with the simple addition of an electric cable could be transformed into a lighting rig.  On the first floor of the fly tower the stage is lined by heavy duty motors to raise and lower the the more-than-30 rigs and right up in the top of the tower are an array of tensioned cable drums to reel in (and out) cables as the rigs go up and down.

Under the main stage is slung a sub stage about 6ft below it that the dozens of trap doors open onto (and they put cushioning for people falling through them, or in the case of the current production an under-lit lift to raise the devil in clouds of smoke and red light onto the stage).  The last thing they showed us was the loading bay which rather curiously was 1 floor below the main stage.  The big scenery trucks come in and reverse fully into the building onto a giant lift, then the rear door of the truck is lifted to be level with the stage so that scenery can just be rolled out without needing to try and offload down to floor level and then move it to the stage.

So enthusiastic was our guide that the tour ran somewhat over it’s allotted time, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Our next stop was at the Royal Palace, though a security stop which reminded us that the palace was still in use by the Spanish King Juan Carlos. The tour took us through an interesting range of rooms, all of which were very opulent (probably only beaten by the Vatican in that respect). The days of the Spanish Empire had allowed the decoration of the palace with much gold, presumably substantially of South American origin. We also noted that the royal chapel was huge, and obviously a very significant element of the palace architecture.  Also on display in the only intact Stradivarius string quartet in the world. There has been a palace of sorts here since the 9th century with the current one being built between 1938 and 1755.  Although only a very small portion is open to the public it is huge with 135,000 square metres of floorspace and 3,418 rooms making it the largest palace in Europe by floor area.

We had lunch in a market (Mercado San Miguel) which offered a range of places to grab little tapas style dishes. ¬†We selected several, including some croquets, some small open sandwiches, some bur rata and some seafood. After that we went on to visit the Cathedral of¬†Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena. Exploring this we were struck by the very modern design with neo-Gothic influence, and we discovered that the building was only recently finished and had been consecrated by Pope Jean Paul in 1993. It turns out that the cathedral had been started in 1879, but took a very long time to finish (!) partly due to complete cessation of works during the Spanish Civil War. We very much admired the interesting modern stained glass and colourful ceiling. We also felt that the underground car park was eminently practical! From the main cathedral we then went down the hill slightly to enter the neo-Romanesque crypt of the cathedral. The crypto is older than the cathedral, and a church in it’s¬†own right. I found the walkways lined by arches very photogenic.

After the tombs we traveled further down the hill to a park (Madrid Rio) which runs for 10 km alongside the river. It apparently used to be the primary motorway through Madrid, however some years ago a decision was taken to sink the road down into a tunnel, and on the top a park has been created in the center of the city. This provided us with a pleasant walk along the river for about an hour, enjoying the view and passing by some very well known local landmarks, such as the Real Madrid football stadium.

As our last visit of the day we headed for a large museum currently showing an exhibition of the terracotta army of the first Chinese Qin Emperor (first God Emperor). These figures were believed to be a form of funerary art, buried with the Emperor in 210BC with the purpose of protecting the Emperor in his afterlife. ¬†Lost for many years they were discovered by local farming peasants in 1974. Current estimates size the total army at over 8,000 soldiers, including infantry, archers, cavalry with their horses and commanders and generals (plus some officials, musicians and other non-military figures). What was particularly notable was the huge variety of clothing, faces and expressions on show – these weren’t factory-produced clones but 8000 individuals! ¬†The original pit in China is now formed into a museum and World Heritage site, and this tour provided a glimpse into this strange and fascinating world.

For dinner we visited an excellent tapas bar, and even though we went early (by local standards) we were lucky to grab the last table available. We enjoyed a range of fantastic dishes, including oxtail balls with prunes and olive oil and wild mushroom risotto with poached egg and fois gras. I enjoyed an excellent glass of local red wine, with Cava for Greg. For dessert we headed to the frozen yohurt seller near our hotel and enjoyed a couple of flavours of yoghurt each.

Our first stop the next day was at the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (Convent of Barefoot Nuns). The convent has room for 33 residents, although there are currently only 20. ¬†It was founded by a Spanish Princess, Joanna of Austria, daughter¬†of King Carlos I of Spain and Isabel or Portugal, and retained strong links to the royal family though it’s illustrious history. It was an interesting building, originally the palace of Carlos and Isabel, with an amazing collection of (priceless) art, which was gifted to them by various benefactors. The collection includes the priceless Titian’s Caesars Money and fantastic tapestries woven to designs from Rubens, which hang floor to ceiling in a large chamber.

The covent nuns were of the Poor Clare order founded in 1559 and throughout the second half of the 16th century and 17th century attracted young widowed or spinster noblewomen bringing their own dowries.  Often substantial the convent became one of the richest in all Europe. Due to changing demographics the nuns, who had lived on the large dowries of incoming initiates, gradually became poorer. However they were forbidden from selling any of the art they had been gifted. So in 1960 the Pope granted them special dispensation to allow them to open the Convent as a museum and thus generate some income to live on.

After the convent we considered visiting the royal park, but the weather wasn’t being helpful so we opted for our backup activity of visiting a local exhibition centre (Caixa Forum) which was currently showing a collection of work from Pixar in celebration of their 25th anniversary. This proved very popular, and it was hard for us to grasp the size of the queue at first sight – it wound around the main central section of the building more than once! In the end we had to wait for about an hour to enter, but once inside decided it was well worth it. On display was a good variety of material – original artwork, maquettes, colour boards, character animation explorations and more from the various Pixar movies. We particularly enjoyed a video about Up showing more detail and some development ideas on the very sad intro sequence, as well as the victorian style rotoscope with Toy Story characters!

As our last stop in Madrid we enjoyed a splendid final lunch at La Sanabresa. We could tell we were in Spain, as lunch hours were from 1pm to 4:30pm, so arriving at 3pm we were by no means the last having lunch. We opted for the superb value 12 euro set lunch and I had roasted peppers with tuna, rabbit with garlic, and crema Catalana; all delicious, as was the complementary drink – a 1/2 bottle of house wine!

After lunch it was on to our next city of.. Seville!

Sintra (Mar 24-27)

Sintra was a totally unexpected, but completely wonderful, stop. It’s technically a town rather than a city and although I’d never heard of it it happens to host several spectacular palaces and gardens, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Apparently in 1809 Lord Byron wrote to his friend Francis Hodgson, saying “I must just observe that the village of Cintra in Estremadura is the most beautiful in the world.”

It’s located to the west of Lisbon, just a short hop by train on a route which runs regularly and takes in several commuter stops in the extended Lisbon suburbs along the way. We arrived fairly late in the day and soon found that our hotel was directly served by one of the regular local buses. This was partly because the hotel – the Pal√°cio de Seteais – was in fact a historic neo-classical palace! It proved to be a wonderful place to stay, possibly my favourite hotel of the cities so far (and that’s up against some stiff competition!). It was also Greg’s bargain of the 40 project, having used an aggregator with a pricing mistake to persuade the hotel to price-match at less than a quarter of their usual rack-rate! Greg had wondered whether this would be reflected in the room somehow but we were allocated a spacious corner room with views across the extensive grounds and the nearby landscape, including being able to see the Castle of the Moors. ¬†The room was very well furnished with period pieces and rather than a minibar there was free fruit and port on a dresser. All in all it made us feel like we were guests of some local noble, or perhaps visiting the Grand Budapest Hotel in it’s heyday! ¬†A delightful quirk was looking for the lift to get our bags up to our room, to find it was in fact a tiny old fashioned lift hidden behind what looked like just another door.

When we arrived we had noticed that some kind of event was taking place. When we enquired we were told that it was a wedding fair; though clearly more upmarket than any we’d ever been to – the exquisite dresses on display had no price tags and there were models having their hair done by the winner of the Portuguese hairdresser of the year… We were invited to explore and only a few minutes later an anxious waiter, having spotted that we were empty handed, pressed glasses of champagne into our hands and offered us a selection of canap√©s (which turned out to be some of the best I’d ever had). It was a slightly surreal experience, but a wonderfully entertaining welcome to the hotel!

Greg had arranged for a very special dinner that night for my birthday. Our hotel had a sister location on the Algarve (southern Portuguese coast) – a restaurant with rooms called Vila Joya. This was a world renowned establishment, with two Michelin stars, which was being renovated over the winter and so closed to guests. As a result the chef and his entire kitchen brigade had decamped to our hotel and were using it as a base to offer a special fine dining dinner option. The result was totally out of this world and made for a very special night indeed. We were seated in a splendid room, with only 4 other tables of which only one other was occupied that evening. The set menu consisted of about 12 courses and all that was provided up front was a list of the main ingredients for each. These didn’t do the food justice – every bite served was a near perfectly executed blend of textures and flavours. I also enjoyed a customised wine flight; having rejected a full wine flight as impractically large. I enjoyed 4 different local wines (after requesting local wine I was firmly told that “we only serve Portuguese wine, sir”!). We were also entertained by the fact that the Sommelier was clearly missing his home in the Algarve, and having waxed lyrical about what a wonderful place Vila Joya itself was “a wonderful location in a splendid setting just minutes from the beach” concluded the description with “but today, we are here…”. Shortly after we returned from this trip I noticed that the Best 50 Restaurants in the World list has just been updated, and Vila Joya was listed at number 22; well deserved in my book.

To explore the next day Greg had planned to hire electrically-supported bikes, but unfortunately the owner of the bike rental shop planned otherwise and decided not to open that day. So instead we caught the bus to our first destination – a remarkable Moorish castle perched on the hillside overlooking Sintra town. So far in the 40 Project our weather luck had been nothing short of remarkable and nothing we’d planned had really been impacted. This stopped being quite so true in Portugal. As we got off the bus the heavens opened and it was quickly really rather soggy. We quickly reordered our itinerary and opted to first visit the enclosed Pal√°cio Nacional da¬†Pena (Pena National Palace) – just a short walk up the hill – before returning to the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors).

The Pal√°cio Nacional da¬†Pena¬†is located in a vast park, situated on a hill with commanding views of the nearby countryside. It’s famous romantic architecture seemed to also have Arabic influence to me (the region has strong moorish history), and it’s considered to be one of the major expressions of 19th century romanticism in the world. It’s counted as one of the seven wonders of Portugal, and is still occasionally used for state functions. It is reasonably small as palaces go, with relatively modest rooms – but it’s the location which makes it a stand-out for me. In fact, on a clear day it can apparently be seen from as far afield as Lisbon!

Originally a small chapel built in the Middle Ages, following an apparition of the origin Mary it was visited in 1493 by King John II.  His successor King Manuel I became fond of the location and ordered the construction of a monastery (Monastery of Nossa Senhora da Pena) to house a maximum of 18 monks on the site which was donated to the Order of Saint Jerome.  It remained for centuries a small, peaceful location used for meditation before being severely damaged by lightening in the 18th Century which was immediately followed by the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755 which rendered it to rubble.  The chapel and its marble and alabaster decoration escaped with minor damage.  Thus it remained until capturing the imagination of young prince Ferdinand, who became King consort Ferdinand II.  As King consort he decided to acquire the old monastery, all of the surrounding lands, the nearby Castelo dos Mouros and a few other estates in the area.

He turned the remains of the monastery into a romantic summer palace for the royal family, with remarkably modest suite (meaning small) of rooms for himself and the Queen.  Originally conceived as an entirely Romantic style building, at the last minute in 1847 he and Queen Maria II intervened with the decoration and introduced Gothic vault arches, Medieval and Islamic elements and a grand, ornate window in the main façade (inspired by the chapter house window of the Convent of the Order of Christ in Tomar).

When Queen Maria died King Ferdinand remarried, this time to Elisa Hensler (an actress) Countess of Edla who acquired the property on his death. ¬†King Lu√ćs, the then king, wanted the palace back for the royal family. ¬†Protracted negotiations resulted in it returning to the royal ownership, with the Countess moving into a small cottage¬†which she designed herself, inspired by Swiss and other alpine chalets, located at the bottom of the garden.

It was this ‘garden’ that I fell in love with. To begin with I should explain that it was still raining – quite heavily in fact. Holding to the (British?) adage that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes, we zipped up our waterproofs and headed off to investigate. We were clearly in the minority though, and through our 2 hours of garden exploration we glimpsed very few other souls. In fact for the first hour it felt that we had the place completely to ourselves, which just added to the magic of this wonderful garden. Pena park is huge – something like 200 hectares in total. There is huge variety within it, which I found captivating – we passed a greenhouse, several water features, a rose garden, a rockery (more like a hill!), a couple of fine viewpoints, a tropical valley filled with ferns (reminiscent of the valley from the lost gardens of Heligan), a lake cascade with huge duck houses looking like grand follies and many forest paths which we wandered down. We also visited cottage of the Countess of Edla, which is actually a very recent reproduction (rebuilt in 2011) as the original burned to the ground in 1999 after many years of neglect. All in all I think that this garden has to go into my top 5 of all time, possibly at the top. The rain progressively eased up, and by the second hour it was dry. We passed a couple of other people at that point, as we slowly headed away from the Palace and towards the exit which would take us to the Castle of the Moors.

As for Palácio Nacional da Pena, after many years of being a popular place for the royal family to stay, in 1889 it was purchased by the Portuguese State and after the 1910 Republican Revolution it became a museum and was classified as a national monument. Queen Amelia, the last queen of Portugal, spent her last night at the palace before being exiled.

The Castelo dos Mouros itself was similarly impressively located – on the hill overlooking Sintra. We could only imagine what a huge undertaking it’s construction must have been back in the 8th and 9th centuries when it was founded. It’s got a long and illustrious history, having started as a key fortress in the Muslim Iberian region. ¬†It was then ceded to Christian forces, lost to the invading Almovorid and regained by the Christians. ¬†Thereafter in the mid 12th century a chapel (dedicated to S√£o Pedro de Canaferrim) was built within its walls which became the parish seat for the next 3 centuries during which time the castle was remodelled and rebuilt several times. ¬†By the middle of the fifteenth century it was all but abandoned and the chapel became a Jewish place of worship and habitation. ¬†In the 16th century the Jews were expelled by Manuel I of Portugal and the structure completely abandoned.

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake caused a lot of damage to the castle and chapel causing the whole place to go for ruin.  It was only in 1954 when any serious work was done, with a small portion being opened as a picnic spot for tourists visiting the palace.  Archeological excavations followed in 1979 and the local scouts were used in 1986 to clear the grounds and consolidate the remaining walls of the castle.  Finally in 2001 a concerted effort was made to make the whole structure open to the public.

What took out breath away was the the castle setting – on a high vantage point with commanding views across most of the plains below. The site itself had several points of interest – some interesting plants, the ancient well and water tank (which you can climb into), and the ruins of a castle keep. However the focus is most definitely on the walls, which you can walk around the top of. We walked along just over half of them, which was especially a notable achievement for Greg as the barriers¬†are ¬Ĺ (sometimes less) to 2/3 of our height, the walkway is a couple of feet wide and there is nothing to speak of on the outside of the wall; other than a sheer drop! The wind then picked up and we noticed the time so opted to descend from the castle and head towards Sintra town center in order to visit our last stop of the day – Sintra National Palace (Pal√°cio Nacional de Sintra, also called Pal√°cio da Vila or Town Palace).

It was a pleasant walk down, descending along winding paths for about 30 mins, going from relatively wild surroundings and gradually joining the outskirts of the town. We arrived at the National Palace with plenty of time before closing, purchased our tickets, and went inside. The palace is the best preserved medieval Royal Palace in Portugal, having been inhabited more or less continuously from the early 15th up to the late 19th century.  Originally built for the Moorish rulers in the early 10th century and taken over by Portuguese kings in the 12th century, none of that original building remains.  The earliest existing part of the palace is the Royal Chapel from the early 14th century, most of the existing palace dates from an extensive building program by King John I around 1415.  This resulted in a palace with a Manueline / Moorish design including the distinctive conical kitchen chimneys which dominate the skyline of Sintra town.  A more recent tower has an amazing coffered domed ceiling decorated with 72 coats-of-arms of the King and the main Portuguese noble families, though the coat-of-arms of the Távora family was removed after their conspiracy against King Joseph I.

Over subsequent centuries the palace was used off and on as a summer residence by the royal family and redecorated numerous times with new paintings, tiles and furniture, but the underlying fabric of the buildings remained the same.  The saddest story associated with the Palace is that of Pedro II who deposed his mentally unstable brother King Afonso VI and forced him to live under house arrest in the Palace from 1676 until his death in 1683.

The palace, like most in the region, was damaged in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake but was according to contemporary accounts restored in the “old fashion”, except for the tower above the Arab room which had collapsed and was not rebuilt. ¬†At the end of 18th century Queen Maria I redivided the rooms in the main living area in a more modern fashion and as Sintra became a popular royal holiday spot once more so the palace was used much more. ¬†This continued until the foundation of the Republic when although being made a National Monument the palace was effectively abandoned. ¬†In 1940 it underwent significant restoration and became a tourist attraction.

We arrived after the main crowds had left for the day and enjoyed a quiet amble round.  It was an interesting building, with clear Moorish  influence and a very peaceful courtyard garden hidden away inside. After exploring the palace we had an unremarkable meal and walked for a pleasant 20mins or so up the hill back to our hotel after a busy day.

The next day we wanted to visit a famous local convent, but unfortunately it wasn’t served by a bus. So without the bikes Greg had planned we resorted to a taxi – the first of our 40 project so far I think. Still, it gave us another mode of transport to add to our collection of plane, train, boat, walking, cable car, ski lift, cog railway and tram! The Convent of the Frairs Minor Capuchin, popularly known as the Convent of the Capuchos, but officially the Convento de Santa Cruz da Serra da Sintra (Convent of the Holy Cross of the Sintra Mountains), is a historical convent consisting of small quarters and public spaces. It’s location was fantastically isolated; it was within a forest, and even from the path which led to it it was impossible to make out the convent itself from more than about 10meters away. The feeling of isolation and abandonment was all the stronger for the fact that we were the only visitors (we passed another couple coming in on our way out much later) – so whilst exploring it was just Greg and I and any ghosts! The convent was hewn into the cliff, and was almost camouflaged as a result. The rooms themselves were very plain, and really very small (even by UK standards!). ¬†The doors into the individual cells were tiny and low, as monks should be on their knees when they enter to show reverence. ¬†Each cell had just enough room to sleep on the floor with a tiny niche for personal belongings. ¬†The order prohibited personal items so monks literally had the clothes they stood up in, a bible and an small icon, nothing else (and definitely no money at all). ¬†Their biggest luxury was some walls had a cork lining to keep the damp out. ¬†The order seemed to value a hard and basic lifestyle, which was clearly what they got.

From the convent our next stop was the Pal√°cio de Monserrate (Monseratte Palace), an exotic palatial villa in extensively landscaped grounds. We realised that it was only an hour away through the forest, which appeared to have clear paths, so we enjoyed a peaceful stroll on what was now a beautiful day through the forest on walking trails. We saw a park ranger at one point, but other than that had the forest to ourselves and all too soon we found ourselves on the other side just outside our destination and back in busy civilisation.

The Palace was relatively small (by Palace standards!) but very interesting, and the award-winning gardens were stunning. Our first stop was at the cafe for lunch, which proved rather tasty and very good value (much better than we’ve recently found National Trust food to be). After that we wandered though various styles of planting, from a formal rose garden to a tropical hillside with waterfall and ferns, and a sunken cactus garden. The lady in the shop was from England and told us that incredibly beautiful though the gardens currently were, we should visit in May when they are truly outstanding.

The original estate was rented by Gerard de Visme, a wealthy English merchant, in who built a neo-Gothic style house there in 1789 and sub leased it in 1793/4 to¬†William Beckford. ¬†Lord Byron visited in 1809, by which time the house was already in ruins, but was clearly still stunning enough to be the source of inspiration for his poem¬†“Childe Harold‚Äôs Pilgrimage”, after which it became obligatory for foreign travellers to visit the property. This was especially true for English visitors, who made vivid descriptions of Monserrate in their countless travel reports and illustrated it in many engravings.

One of the most famous visitors was Francis Cook, another extremely wealthy English industrialist, who was later decorated by King Luís with the title of Visconde (Viscount) de Monserrate and subrogated the estate in 1856.  In 1863 the current palace was built with distinctly medieval and oriental-style influences, its Moghul-inspired details are unique in Portugal, its eclecticism is a fine example of the Sintra Romanticism.

Dinner that night was a spontaneous pick, recommended by some strangers who had just eaten there and were leaving as we read the menu outside. We were the first to have dinner and the staff proved to be very friendly and the food tasty and not expensive. After we paid the bill the owner insisted that we try the local port, and poured us a glass each leaving the bottle on the table!

Our last day in Sintra arrived too soon, and we had one house and grounds left to visit – Quinta da Regaleira. The property consists of a romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite constructions on a 4 hectare site. The house was very interesting, particularly for the roof which has spectacular architecture – including gothic pinnacles, capitals, gargoyles and an octagonal tower, a wonderful view, and a rooftop laboratory!

Owned by a variety of owners over many year the property takes it name from the Barons¬†of Regaleira, who sold it to Ant√≥nio Augusto¬†Carvalho Montiero in 1892. ¬†Monteiro was eager to build a bewildering place where he could collect symbols that reflected his interests and ideologies resulting in the 4-hectare estate we see today. In addition to other new features, he added enigmatic buildings that allegedly held symbols related to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians. ¬†The archictecture across the state is an eclectic blend of Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline styles built between 1904 and 1910 resulting in the property nickname of¬†“The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire”.

However the house absolutely took second honours for me to the garden, which was magnificent – varied, extensive (though not on the scale of Pena Park) and mysterious; the kind of garden which made me think of Jules Verne. As well as standard garden fare it contains a tennis court/bowling green, huge water tank (disguised as a castle), several towers with splendid views, and a large chapel complete with templar imagery and a secret tunnel in the crypt to the house. The real standout in the garden is the extensive and enigmatic system of tunnels, which have multiple entry points that include: the labyrinthine grottoes, the chapel, Waterfall Lake, and “Leda’s Cave,” which lies beneath the Regaleira Tower. Two “Initiation Wells” also connect to other tunnels via a series of underground walkways; the larger well contains a 27-meter spiral staircase and is really quite spooky. I thoroughly enjoyed this garden, and I have never wandered around anywhere with quite so many surprises round the corner. And where you can go from being in the company of many fellow visitors at one location, to feeling completely alone in less than 5 minutes. Amazing.

From there it was farewell as we boarded the train back to Lisbon and on to… Madrid!

Lisbon (Mar 21-24)

Our next extended trip started with… Lisbon! I didn’t know much about the city, so my first impression was of the weather – warm, but wet; a theme which continued throughout our visit. The flight with BA from Heathrow was perfectly pleasant, and we arrived on time albeit fairly late. We took the metro from the airport to our hotel, the Altis Avenida which was pretty centrally located. I was nervous when I realised that our room had a view of the major plaza and road system next to the hotel, but we were reasonably high up with good double glazing so it wasn’t noisy at all.

Our first proper day began with a trip up the Santa Justa lift. Lisbon is very hilly and has this lift and various funiculars to overcome this. The lift was built in 1900 in cast iron to join the upper and lower parts of the city. Two old fashioned wooden cabins taking up to 29 (up, only 24 down) passengers travel up and down the tower which exits at the top via a cast iron walkway into the upper city. There is a viewing platform above the lifts as the machinery is actually located in the tower base. From the lift we walked to the excellent MUDE fashion museum. The most noteworthy aspect of the museum was it’s location, in an old bank building. This was exploited in a wonderful way by the museum as the setting for some of it’s exhibits. In particular the bank vault in the basement currently houses the ceramic exhibit. The result is very unusual and stunning – pieces of fabulous ceramics placed in perspex security deposit boxes inside a huge vault to reach which requires you to go through three extraordinarily thick security doors (proper “Chubb” bank vault doors); a unique and spectacular setting.

After the museum we caught a tram out to an area called Belém. The tram turned out to be modern and impressive, albeit not quite as much as Zagreb. Our first destination was Jerónimos Monastery, a large building which dated back to 1459, becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. We were particularly taken by the large and wonderfully ornate cloisters, with fantastically detailed carvings and designs in the Manueline style. In the corridors were the doors that the monks used to enter the confessionals, allowing them to hear confessions without really leaving the monastery. Those confessing would enter the confessional from a corresponding door in the Church of Santa Maria. The monastery has dedicated one room, previously the monastery library, to a housing visual and narrative history. It was very well done and ran around in a large circle within the room (English on the outside, Portuguese on the inside) and had three time tracks relating to events in the monastery itself, in the city of Lisbon and in Portugal, all dating back to the 15th century and proving very informative. The west wing, previously used by visiting members of the Royal family now houses the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (National Archaeological Museum) and the Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum).

After the monastery we grabbed a nice but simple lunch in a local caf√© and trekked off to our next stop of Bel√©m Tower, via Padr√£o dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries). The tower is a small but historically significant tower on the river with a rich history, and has been used as a fort to control the river traffic (along with a fort on the opposite bank). It also had incarnations as a state prison, a customs post, a beacon and a telegraph service. The tower’s commander was a royal appointment and considered a very influential post. We left Bel√©m Tower and headed back towards where we’d had lunch. Just up the hill was a tropical garden known as the Jardim do Ultramar that we explored at the sun set. It was an eclectic place, with few other visitors this close to closing time. We enjoyed our wander, and in particular the unexpected Japanese themed area we stumbed across almost by accident.

Finally we travelled back to main Lisbon center and our hotel. One quick change later we headed out to a restaurant at which Greg had arranged for the hotel staff to book us dinner. It was called Restaurante Pharmacia, and turned out to be housed in an interesting building atop a hill within Lisbon. The building also houses the Associação Nacional das Farmácias
(National Association of Pharmacies) and the Pharmacy Museum, hence the name and theme of the restaurant. Said theme made this a very different meal – to begin with the main room was decorated with medical paraphanalia which gave it an interesting atmosphere. The water bottle was an old fashioned ether bottle, and as we ate the various courses came on interesting plates – such as the soup served in a measuring cylinder and bread in a medical specimen dish. The menu was also interesting, in that we opted for the ‘surprise’ menu and were presented with a sequence of interesting dishes forming a small tasting menu. The food was excellent quality, and all in all it was a great evening.

The next day we visited Castelo de S√£o Jorge (St Georges Castle), which sits in a commanding location on a hill in central Lisbon. We took an enjoyable walk up to the entrance, passing through quiet streets along the way. The immediate locale of the castle was busier with other visitors and as we entered the sun came out and rewarded us with a beautiful sunny day. We explored the grounds of the old castle and palace, now mostly ruined. The view of Lisbon from this vantage point was excellent, and it was interesting wandering around the old walls and absorbing some of the atmosphere. In the oldest area of the site there are 7th century ruins and the outlines of Moorish courtyard based dwellings dating back to the 11th century. After exploring the castle for a while we headed down back into the city via a deliberately circuitous route – Greg had a walking tour around the old quarter (Alfama) which consisted of a maze of old streets and buildings on the hillside. In amongst the local interest that we passed by were three elderly woman who looked like they were having a happy gossip by someone’s house; we finally understood why people used doors which open separately at the bottom and top halves.

Next stop was the Ajuda National Palace, which was about 20 minutes away by bus. It was remarkably quiet to visit, and for several rooms we were the only visitors; in fact even the staff were rather sparse! In the end we passed about 10 other people during our tour Рvery few for such a location. Following an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 Joseph, the then King became concerned about the safety of the then Royal Palace and refused to live in a masonry building, so a wooden palace was built in Belém.  Following the death of the king, the wooden palace was destroyed by fire while his successor was in residence in the Palace at Queluz.  In 1795 work began on what was planned to be a grand Royal palace (in masonry) on the site.  A combination of many changes in architect, disagreements between architects and contractors, war and financial difficulties meant that designs for the palace were changed many times and the Royal family moved in when only a small portion of it had been built.  Eventually all work ceased in 1910 when the monarchy fell and was replaced by a republic with less than a third of the originally planned building completed.  It fell into ruin thereafter, followed by various attempts at restoration, including one which resulted in the North wing being burned down (including the painting gallery and the priceless artwork within it). Via use as the Ministry for Culture it has become a museum while elaborate plans to complete the building have never come to fruition.

Towards the end of our tour the final member of staff mentioned that a music recital was just about to start in a room down the corridor. It was apparently free, and she suggested we put our heads round the corner to take a look. When we did so an enthusic attendant thrust a programme into our hands and ushered us to a seat. The recital was attended by several parents with children, and turned out to be an end-of-term show by the Lisbon Academy of Music. At a guess the performers were between 8 and 16 and were all of a very high standard. The 3 soloists were particularly impressive; especially given the youngest looked around 8! The programme lasted for about an hour and was a wonderful surprise treat for us. Following the recital we wandered down to the botanical gardens, which were once the Palace gardens. We didn’t have long here, but enjoyed half an hour in the evening sun amongst the plant life. There weren’t many other visitors, but we did see some kids (we assume staying at what appeared to be a hostel) who appeared to be rehearsing for a play.

Dinner that night was at an Argentinian themed restaurant, Carvoaria Jacto. ¬†It is a fantastic backstreet restaurant, favoured by locals and you would never find it if you didn’t know it was there. ¬†It was fully booked, but fortunately as we very early they squeezed us in as we promised to eat and leave in just over an hour. ¬†We chose some veal with king prawns, which was served hung on skewers, and some steak, which we shared. Both were good with the steak being particularly excellent and properly rare, with a final bill that was surprisingly good value.

Our last day in Lisbon was a trip to Parque das Na√ß√Ķes, the¬†sea-front area. This area had been recently developed over the last decade or so, particularly as part¬†of Expo 98. It’s got some really interesting architecture, and on a nice day is a splendid place to wander around; fortunately we visited on a great day with bright sunshine and clear blue skies. Our first stop was the well regarded Ocean√°rio de Lisboa (Lisbon Oceanarium), which we enjoyed for a good couple of hours. It is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe including an outstanding main central tank. ¬†Standing two stories high, with huge picture windows that you can walk round, it contains around 5 million litres of water and more than 20 thousand fish and sea mammals. ¬†It’s got a good range of other tanks and species, and we particularly enjoyed one of the corner areas which housed a couple of sea otters. They’d recently been provided with a container full of ice cubes, which they were clearly having a lot of fun with. One otter would tackle the container to scoop out some cubes, and he’d then swim around on his back playing with the cube and sometimes passing it off to his partner, which was very charming to watch.

After the Oceanarium we took a cable car ride to the far end of the waterfront area, and walked back to where we’d started. There was a great view from the cable car, and it gave us an interesting new visual perspective on the area. We were then able to revisit places we’d seen from above during our walk back. In particular it was nice to stroll through various small gardens which had been created by the side of a tree-lined path, and given that the sun was now pretty hot we enjoyed the shade of these varied creations. Lunch was in the local shopping mall, and much more interesting than that sounds. I had some squid cooked in the local fashion, although I almost chose some chargrilled steak; not quite the kind of mall food we are used to back home!

We left Lisbon by train, and headed to our next destination of… Sintra! (despite my claim to Greg that, without knowing where our next city was, it was must¬†be east from Lisbon… Sintra is however to the west!)

Dublin (Feb 28-March 3)

We traveled from Bristol to Dublin via Aer Lingus (both of us are keen to avoid RyanAir for as long as possible, hopefully for ever..!). It was an early flight, but not particularly full and perfectly pleasant. At Dublin airport we didn’t find the bus stop into the city very easily (ironically it’s almost always been easier in the foreign-language locations we’ve visited!) but we eventually located it and were soon on the Airport Express coach into Dublin city centre. We got off near our hotel (Roxford Lodge) which was a small friendly guest house about 30mins walk from Trinity College. In a first for us our room had a small infra-red sauna in it, which over the weekend we found nice after a long day walking around the city. (I used the Fitbit app on my phone whch showed we did around 67,000 steps around Dublin estimated at approximately 49 km)

For our first stop of the day we found a well regarded local sandwich shop (Green Bench Caf√©) joined the long queue, and armed with some delicious selections we wandered into the large St Stephen’s park and ate our lunch whilst enjoying the sunshine which had recently begun. Following lunch we headed to the National Museum of Ireland and explored their archeology section, learning about ancient Irish history and the Celtic people. It is in a period building adjacent to the rather grand old building which is the Department of the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) and includes his office. We also popped into the National Library, the other side of the Department of the Taoiseach, which has a rather magnificent reading room that we admired. In fact the book theme would remain a strong one for our Dublin visit.

Later in the afternoon we headed to the Abbey Theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland) for a backstage tour, which proved to be very interesting. We heard about the history of the national theatre, including some Irish history, as well as seeing some behind-the-scenes elements such as their costume shoe collection. (Although the bulk of the costume collection is now held off site and often rented out to other theatre companies nationwide). I was also tickled to learn that the 3rd, lesser known, founder of the national theatre was none other than one Edward Martin! (alas, he was the only founder not to have a portrait on display). On the way back from the National Theatre we noticed a bus advertising a No√ęl Coward play currently showing (Vortex) and we spontaneously popped in to the box office to ask about tickets. There had been two good seats returned for the matinee the next day, which we snapped up. Dinner that night was a casual meal at the Bison Bar and BBQ, where I enjoyed some tasty bbq ribs and Greg had pulled pork. Finally we headed back to the guest house for an early night after a long and busy day.

Day two started with a visit to the Chester Beatty library. This was an astonishing collection for books, truely magnificant in terms of it’s focus of ancient Asian and Islamic book collections. The visit proved to be fascinating, and we’d have loved to have spend more time there. As it was we marvelled at the astounding illustrations in many of the books, as well as many ornate covers and spines. Chester Beatty famously had an eye for quality and his collection was absolutely outstanding. In the end we felt this was our highlight visit of the Dublin weekend. We did however all too soon need to skip across town to the Number 29 Georgian house museum. This was an interesting glimpse into an upper middle class family around the turn of the 19th century. Small, but well done and I admired a contemporaneous poster advising on correct grammar; a copy of which I was later able to purchase in the gift shop! We headed out for lunch, which was a quick but very tasty stop at Le Poulet Bonne Femme, housed (almost secretly!) in the basement of a large, somewhat eccentric, department store (Avoca). The freshly roasted chicken was very tasty, as was the pasta salad I’d put together.

Our final primary stop of the day was to the Gate Theatre, which was the one we’d visited on day 1 when we’d picked up tickets to a show. So we enjoyed Noel Coward’s ‘The Vortex’ in very impressive surroundings ; the Gate was a fairly small but rather charming theatre. It is housed in what was previously a wing of the adjacent maternity hospital which was used for fundraising including sumptuous grand balls. Dinner was a nice burger at Counter Burger, with a ‘menu’ of options from which we chose our type of burger, cheese, toppings and type of bread bun. The result was very tasty, albeit a little over cooked. For dessert we sought out the very well regarded Murphy’s ice-cream, and enjoyed several exceptional flavours including the sublime sea salt vanilla. After dinner we put on one of the DVDs supplied in our room, and enjoyed “Marley and Me”, which was a good choice even though it made us both cry at the end! (quite a choice for Greg’s birthday).

Day three started with a bus journey to Kilmainham Goal, which proved to be a thoroughly absorbing visit. The history of the jail is very much entwined with the political history of Ireland, and the jail itself does a good job of putting this history in context and bringing it to life. The main detention block is also very photogenic; and is apparently often used for TV dramas, including recently Ripper Street. As well as seeing the Gaol itself there is an excellent museum which tells you more about the history of the Gaol, it’s restoration, and related Irish contextual history. After the Goal we headed up to Dublin Zoo, and enjoyed wandering around the various sections. A few older cages struck us as too small, but many had been recently upgraded to give the animals much more space and a more natural environment, so for example the elephants and giraffes had a very large habitat to wander in. We also enjoyed seeing the wolves (yes, there was some howling!) and of course the meerkats which unusually you could see from inside the (pretty decent) cafe which had a glass wall! At the end of this day I was also very pleased to be able to catchup with my godfather Peter – who moved to Dublin many years ago and whom I hadn’t seen for about a decade. We took him for dinner at The Bank on College Green restaurant, housed in the splendid setting of an old bank with the men’s toilets in the vaults, and I enjoyed catching up a little on the many intervening years.

For our final day we sought out Trinity College to visit the library and Book of Kells, an ancient illuminated Bible which is housed in a museum which explains it’s history and importance, as well as showing other important book artifacts. After the viewing we continued upstairs to see the magnificent old library. It is double height with huge wooden bookshelves on both the lower floor and the gallery running around the room that was the upper floor. The upper floor was built to accommodate a significant bequest of books. The bookshelves were arranged to form three sides of a box, with the gallery balcony forming the fourth side. The series of “boxes” were linked by a small doorway cut into the bookcases from one to the next all the way along the gallery on either side.

Following a tip off from my Dad we stopped by an old Bank of Ireland branch, that happens to contain the room which was the original Irish House of Lords. Unfortunately it was being renovated so we couldn’t see it, but we did admire the main public room (currently used by bank tellers) which was magnificent with lots of wood and high ceilings. Our final visit was to Marsh’s library, the oldest public library in Ireland, built in 1701. It is located in a purpose-built building between St Patrick’s Cathedral (the main Catholic cathedral in Dublin) and the Archbishops Palace. The original collection came from the over 10,000 volume collection of Bishop Edward Stillingfleet and supplemented by the personal collection of Bishop Marsh. It was further increased by the collection of Dr Elias Bouhereau, the first librarian. He was a Huguenot refugee who fled France in 1695. To bring his collection of books with him he “sold” his books to the Irish ambassador who had them shipped over as diplomatic cargo. It’s a small but fascinating place to visit, still in it’s original location, and books apparently still in the original order! The books are all stored in on magnificent purpose built mahogany shelving and are all of “good character” including books on science, musical manuscripts and a wide variety of religious texts in English as well as Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and Russian. Some books have seen better days, including one with a hole which we were told was caused by a British machine gun during a political uprising! Of note were the three cages in which people sat when they wished to read rare or expensive books and the back entrance into the Archbishops Palace still exists.

We had a nice lunch in the restaurant of a large department store called Killkenny, overlooking Trinity College playing fields. From there we headed back to the guest house to collect our luggage, travelled back to the airport and returned home.

Innsbruck (Oct 3-6)

This wasn’t our typical city..

To start with I knew that we were onto a good thing when we were met at the train station by a driver, who escorted us to his car Рa comfortable Audi with dual zone back seat passenger climate control (though I am really not sure what would happen if I turned my side up, and Greg turns his side down, but still).  Our journey took us briefly on a motorway out of Innsbruck, and then quickly onto more minor roads and we began to wend our way up into the mountains.  Greg explained that our next hotel was rather special, and had been recommended to him for many years by a work colleague as their favourite hotel in the world.  I got a flavour of this when we arrived Рthe hotel itself is an amazing design, three wings coming out from a central hub and rooms lining the wings with balconies strewn with beautiful flowers.  The view was short lived however as the car kept on driving into the garage with us, and to my surprise drove up to an indoor lobby, where we got out inside the hotel onto carpet and bell boys swarmed over our luggage. We were shown into the lift and whisked up the the main reception.  Check in was very quick and we were soon shown to our room.

Greg later told me that it was the second-smallest room layout offered, but it was still huge.  Not only was the bathroom vast, with both a generous shower and separate large bath, there was a beautiful writing desk, a chaise-long, a sofa area, a dining table with seating, and a large balcony.  Oh, did I mention the walk in wardrobe complete with a spare bed? (just in case you brought your butler or valet I wondered!).  We then spent an hour or two wandering around the hotel and being continually delighted at what we found round each corner.  In particular the garden was truly wonderful and it was exquisite walking through it under a beautiful blue sky with breathtaking mountains all around us. In fact the whole setting was magical Рthe hotel was located in a small forest on a hilltop, and commanded amazing 360 views. It was a very fairytale vista, quiet apart from the real world.

That evening we’d booked an excursion consisting of a short walk to a local rustic restaurant followed by typical Austrian food. ¬†To be honest we didn’t really get on with this experience (the only disappointment of the visit). ¬†Not least the destination was changed, and we were driven there instead of walking which rather missed the point for me. ¬†We were however rather amused to see a lot of posh cars in the garage – all recently cleaned and valeted and with one section dedicated to same model Audi’s with consecutive number plates – it appeared that the Audi Alpen Tour 2013 was visiting for the evening; ¬†very Fast and Furious my brother described it as! (We later found out that they had commandeered the restaurant that we were meant to have gone to!)

The next day we went to breakfast to be greeted with a vast array of sections replete with tempting food. ¬†Bear with me while I try and give you a list, as it had to be seen to be be believed. ¬†A dozen or more types of bread and bread rolls, ¬†with 10 different homemade fruit spreads, a similar number of diabetic ones, plus 6 varieties of local honey, and Nutella of course! ¬†A whole marble sideboard covered with cold meats (more than 20 kinds, being continually topped up by a lady slicing assorted joints at one end). ¬†Next a wide variety of teas (along with a good selection of coffees and hot chocolate). ¬†Fruit juices (6 kinds) and smoothies (4 kinds) and sparkling wine for the diva in you. ¬†There was an extensive fresh fruit section, a dozen or so types of breakfast cereal (with skimmed, semi skimmed or full fat milk or an array of types of yoghurt presented in huge tureens). ¬†If you fancied a pastry there were about 8 or so each day, all lovingly crafted by the in-house bakers. ¬†If your taste was more to the full english there was the normal array of bacon, sausages, hash browns, tomatoes, beans, etc. ¬†No eggs? ¬†Nothing could be further from the truth – there was an egg bar where eggs were cooked in any fashion you chose, boiled, yes, scrambled, yes, omelette, just tell us what array of fillings you want – the cheese was fabulous), poached, no problem at all, fried, yep – how firm do you want it? ¬†If you have any room at all left after that there was the cr√™pe¬†station – which kind of undersells it. ¬†Cr√™pes with a wide variety of fillings were made to order – Greg was a fan of Nutella and assorted fresh berries, there were also American style pancakes and fluffy waffles. ¬†Lets just say we rolled out of there each morning and didn’t particularly need any lunch!

After breakfast I had signed up for a guided hike, and together with some fellow guests I waited in the lobby for our guide. ¬†20 guests had signed up for the hike, but in the end only 5 of us appeared, the remainder having been put off by the rain currently falling heavily outside. ¬†I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as bad weather for walking, rather simply the wrong clothes. ¬†So armed with the right clothes the smaller group headed to the van, and were driven about 30 mins to our starting point. Our guide turned out to be a friendly guy, who had grown up locally and worked for the hotel primarily as a gym instructor. ¬†He was a keen hiker, and proved to be an excellent guide. ¬†He knew the local area well and was enthusiastic about the local terrain. ¬†He’d previously scaled the local mountain, but today was leading us on a more modest route (though he did seem to me to glance up at the nearby peak rather longingly from time to time!) . ¬†We proceeded up reasonably steeply from the valley floor, through very variable weather. ¬†At times we walked through light drizzle, but mostly it was dry though with large banks of fog swirling around and making the trek very atmospheric. ¬†When the fog did break were were rewarded with spectacular views over forest and faraway hilltops. ¬†After our climb we proceeded along a fairly horizontal path which ran along the side of the hillside, reasonably level and undemanding walking. ¬†The path was somewhat narrow in places with reasonably steep drops to side, but nothing like Greg and I survived in Lichtenstein. ¬†My fellow hikers were interesting people, and I particularly enjoyed chatting to several members of a family who were staying in the hotel for a few weeks and had enjoyed a previous hike the day before. ¬†After about 3 hours we descended slightly and entered a valley with a small mountain hut restaurant where we were due to have a pit stop. ¬†We welcomed the opportunity to sit down and have a drink and bite to eat – I opted for some very fine hot chocolate and a local dish with pork and dumplings which was tasty, although too big for me to finish! ¬†From here we descended further on a wide track back down to where we started, about 7 miles later, and returned by bus back to the hotel – just as heavy rain started to fall!

Greg had opted for a different style of day, and had stayed in the hotel to enjoy the extremely impressive facilities.  He had spent some time by the hybrid indoor/outdoor pool; imagine you can swim in the 50 meter indoor pool Рwith swim in areas with dramatic showers Рthen swim to the the automatic sliding doors and out into the large outdoor pool with jacuzzis in the corners and bubbling chaise longue along the sides. He then enjoyed the spa village which consisted of several steam rooms and saunas of different styles, before a stop in the spa café.  He had also taken a few minutes to chat to the customer services manager about our evening disappointment, who proved very responsive and an excellent listener, and as a result there was a bottle of champagne chilling in our room.  I met Greg in the spa village after my hike, and we enjoyed an aufguss together.  The saunameister was particularly impressive Рafter initially explaining the ritual in both German and English he heard a visitor translating into Italian for a colleague, and immediately added fluent Italian to his spiel! This particular aufgauss involved a honey skin treatment, had a midway break where we went outside to be sprayed with cold water to cool down, and ended with a glass of Prosecco Рvery civilised!

After the spa it was time for dinner, which was our first at the hotel. ¬†They offered an a-la carte experience, but like most guests we opted for the set menu, which was included in our room tariff. ¬†It proved to be an impressive experience with 5 excellent courses. ¬†We took our champagne from our room with us, and enjoyed it with dinner. ¬†The starters were very well executed, as were the soup and main courses. ¬†We then enjoyed a cheese course, for which we helped ourselves from an extensive buffet with more than 40 types of cheese – a fantastic range from various European countries including some of my personal favourites, such as Colston Basset stilton and √Čpoisses. ¬†Dessert was a similarly impressive dessert selection, though I have to admit that I was rather full by that point and so didn’t sample many options, but enjoyed the ones I did try. Overall it continued the excellent standard that breakfast had established.

Our next day was deliberately designed to be an easy day with a few selected spa treatments booked for each of us. ¬†I particularly enjoyed¬†the wrap treatment, which involved being covered in mud and wrapped up in a warm blanket and floated in warm water. Very relaxing. I was also impressed that even though the weather was bad, and many guests will have stayed in the hotel, it never felt busy or full. The space and facilities just ate the people up, and it always felt relaxed. I also took the opportunity of a break in the weather to explore some of the nearby forest and wondered the trails for an hour or so enjoying the scenery and the late afternoon light. Breakfast and dinner that day were as good as the previous day, and Greg enjoyed chatting with the same waitress we’d had from the day before. When he declared that he was trying to practice the language she happily obliged by making him order his food in German, helping and correctly any mistakes. Though he did stump her by asking what Ma’am was in German, for which there appears to be no single direct equivalent.

Overall we had an amazing experience at the InterAlpen. ¬†It managed that elusive combination of many great factors – amazing setting, great facilities, and a wonderful ambiance. Often upmarket places can feel posh but not welcoming and both of us felt that wasn’t the case here at all; the atmosphere was very relaxed, almost homely. In fact, with the hotel so good we completely failed to manage any excursions to Innsbruck proper! We left the hotel vowing to go back (and in fact I’ve already started saving so that we can return when The40Project is complete).

With a fond farewell we left the hotel the next day, and were driven back to the train station. From there we caught a train to Frankfurt, then on to Bristol in a tiny cigar of a plane where seat allocations were rearranged on boarding to make sure it balanced properly (we were told we couldn’t sit in the front 8 rows!). Frankfurt airport is hands-down the most confusing to find your way round with terrible signage. We were however amused when we were boarded onto a bus which did a scenic tour across the entire expanse of the airport for more than 20 minutes – I guess an effect of checking in Terminal 1 (departures section A) and the plane is on a remote stand way beyond Terminal 2 (departures section E). We did stop in Munich for a nice lunch at NordSee which we had previously enjoyed eating at during one of earlier adventures of the 40 project. We found Munich to be surprisingly busy – explained when we checked the dates and discovered that it was the last day of Octoberfest! Good thing we had booked seats on the train.. ūüôā

So, 26 down and 14 to go… !