Friday, November 19, 2010

Alicante & Valencia

Oct 15.

First thing in the morning, we took a cab to the airport for our trip to Alicante. We had a layover in Madrid and our connecting flight was delayed some, so we did not arrive until about 3 pm. Roly was there to pick us up when we landed and drove us down to their condo in Guardamar, where Sarah was waiting for us. We had a drink, relaxed and chatted on their deck. Then they drove us down to the Marina and we had a walk on the beach. Roly and I talked about this and that and Laura and Sarah probably talked about more weighty issues as they followed behind. On our way back to the car, we ran into a couple of their neighbors who were also out for a stroll. We drove back to their place to freshen up.

Afterwards, we walked into town for Dinner at one of their favorite places, a little restaurant called La Vuelta, owned by some Dutch people. We had some of the best bread that we’d had the entire time, slathered with Alioli. We followed this with Escargot and I had a nice cod. Laura had pork medallions which she said were overcooked. They had a singer, who was doing mostly old standards. He did a lot of Frank Sinatra. We all danced. It was a very nice and lively little restaurant. After dinner, we all strolled back through town to their condo.

Oct 16

As had become our pattern, we got up late. We drove to a nearby town to have an English breakfast, see some of the new development, past the golf course. It was another beautiful sunny day. After breakfast, we drove back in a large loop, through the south side of town. Roly and Sarah pointed out the prostitutes who would sit at the side of the road, mostly near roundabouts, wearing their hot pants and high heels, sitting on a folding chair reading. We stopped in town to walk down to the beach and see the town portion of the beach. Then we stopped back at the condo to pick up our bags and Roly and Sarah drove us to the train station in Alicante, which was about a half hour away.

We got on the 3:20 train to Valencia. Very nice ride on the high speed train (not exactly a bullet train, but pretty good speed). Arrived about 5:20 and got a cab to the Hotel Ayre Astoria Palace on the Plaza Rodrigo Botet. We walked over to the Cathedral and had a drink sitting on the Plaza. There were several weddings going on, so there was lots of traffic and people walking to and fro in suits and fancy dresses. After a bit we went looking for a restaurant that I had an Internet recommendation for, but it turned out that they were only open after 9 pm, so we decided to just roll the dice and wandered off towards the Market. We wound up eating at a fairly non-descript little restaurant. I had paella, which was OK, but not great.

Oct 17

We had breakfast on the plaza by the Cathedral. It was a very chilly morning, unless you were in the sun, which happened to be on the opposite side of the plaza. We visited the Cathedral and climbed the Tower (about 280 feet high). Laura did not make it to the top, since it was getting pretty claustrophobic about ¾ of the way up. There were excellent views from the top, since the tower was the tallest structure in the older part of town. The cathedral, started in 1248, houses some interesting relics and is an interesting conglomeration of styles, including gothic, Romanesque, baroque and neo-classical. One relic of interest (although we did not pay to see it) is described in Wikipedia:

One of the supposed Holy Chalices, present around the world, is revered in one of this cathedral's chapels; this chalice has been defended as the true Holy Grail; indeed, most Christian historians all over the world declare that all their evidence points to this Valencian chalice as the most likely candidate for being the authentic cup used at the Last Supper.

We walked over to the Serrano Gates, which were part of the old medieval wall of the City, and walked through the park created after Valencia diverted the river after severe floods in 1957. We looped back through the center of town and decided to take the Metro down to the beach.

Unlike Barcelona, the Valencia Metro is very difficult to figure out. Not the lines, but the price of a ticket. Eventually, we just went to the ticket agent and got two tickets to the beachfront (should have got return tickets). We took the train to the end of the line and hopped on the light rail and got off a few blocks from the beach. The beach is wide and flat and has a wonderful promenade running along it for several miles. At the near end, there are dozens of restaurants and bars along the promenade, so we decided to have lunch. Most of the places were pretty pricey, but we found a nice looking place. Laura had a salad and I had a turkey burger watching the people stroll by on the Promenade. A few young guys were setting up a volley ball net on the beach in front of us.

After lunch, we decided to take a walk on the beach. There were a fair number of people on the beach as it was a bright sunny day, but the wind was beginning to pick up so it was cooling down. As we got down to the water, it turned out to be not such a nice beach. The water was pretty dirty looking with sea weed and some trash. We walked for a while and then decided to head back towards town. Because we couldn’t figure out what the fare might be, we walked all the way back to the end of the Metro line and bought tickets and rode back to the hotel.
We had a couple of drinks at a bar on the Plaza. Then we had dinner at a great little restaurant down the street from where we ate the previous night. We split the best paella we had in Spain and some swordfish.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Oct 12

We had to get up early to get to the airport to fly to Sevilla. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain so the idea of taking a cab to Plaza Catalunya and standing around waiting for the bus didn’t seem that enticing. We wound up taking a cab all the way to the airport. On the plus side it was warm and dry. On the downside, it was very expensive (about 50 Euros, ouch!).

The flight was largely uneventful, but it was a bumpy ride. We took the Airport Shuttle downtown and then caught a taxi to the Hotel Bécquer on Reyes Católicos. Despite arriving at about 10am, we were able to check right in and freshen up. The hotel was somewhat older, but very clean and neat. We wandered over to the cathedral through the narrow streets and found a little outdoor café at the edge of the old Jewish quarter of the city, behind the cathedral where we had a drink and some lunch. By this time, we were really settling in to the whole Spanish experience. Conversations began to turn to subjects like how comfortable we felt in Europe and how easy it was to see us retiring there

After lunch, we walked through the old quarter, starting at the Patio de la Banderas, and a park, looping around and then back through the center of town. Across from the Cathedral, we wound up listening to some street musicians, including a jazz band with violin, guitar, accordion and percussion. Eventually, we wandered back to the Hotel and changed for dinner.

For dinner, we decided that we would cross the river and check out the restaurants and bars in the Triana neighborhood. We had a drink across the Puente de Isabel II in a bar in the old bridge tower. There was a very nice view of the city from the rooftop bar and the sunset reflecting off the Cathedral’s Rose Window, but Laura was not pleased with the wine and (since it was only sold by the bottle) the waiter, who did not speak English, wanted payment etc.
Anyway, after getting some help from a couple of American students who were able to talk to the waiter, Laura got another glass of wine (not much better), so we finished our drinks and walked down the street along the river and found a restaurant with outdoor tables.

We went inside with the waiter so that Laura could sample their white wine. It passed the test, so we decided we would stay. I had a fairly mediocre dish of paella, but the view was great and it was a pleasant evening to be outside. Particularly in Sevilla, but probably in other places in Spain, you will come across Restaurants which have these glossy menus showing the various Paellas that are available. Whenever you see them, don’t order the Paella. It’s prepackaged, possibly even microwaved. By the time we finished eating, it was starting to chill down quite a bit. We walked back to the hotel and had a drink at the bar before turning in.

Oct 13

It was overcast and chilly in the morning. We found a little bar for breakfast up the street from the hotel. I wound up having another ham and cheese baguette. I also had some wonderful fresh squeezed orange juice (zumo el naranja). Laura may have just had toast and coffee. After breakfast, we walked over to the cathedral for a visit.

The cathedral of Sevilla is the largest gothic cathedral and the third largest cathedral of any kind (behind St. Paul’s in London and St. Peter’s in the Vatican) in the world. It is also very elaborately decorated in the interior, with a beautiful choir and organ and a 65’ x about 20’ High Altar carved with scenes from the life of Christ and painted with gold leaf. The Altar took about 80 years to complete. It is also the resting place of Christopher Columbus, who had quite a journey after his death. As noted in Wikipedia:

Columbus's remains were first interred at Valladolid, then at the monastery of La Cartuja in Seville (southern Spain) by the will of his son Diego, who had been governor of Hispaniola. In 1542 the remains were transferred to Colonial Santo Domingo, in the present-day Dominican Republic. In 1795, when France took over the entire island of Hispaniola, Columbus's remains were moved to Havana, Cuba. After Cuba became independent following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the remains were moved back to Spain, to the Cathedral of Seville, where they were placed on an elaborate catafalque.

Before leaving, we climbed the 330’ Giralda tower for a fantastic view of the city. The tower is unique in that it does not have stairs, but rather an inclined walkway, which is much easier on the thighs and much less claustrophobic than many medieval towers. It was originally built as a minaret for the mosque that preceded the cathedral and the walkway was designed so that a horse could carry the muezzin to the top for his 5 times daily call to prayer. The bell tower was added after it became part of the cathedral. As we got to the top of the tower, the fog and clouds were beginning to burn off.

We decided to take a walk through the Old Quarter to get to Plaza Santa Cruz. Again we managed to get ourselves pretty lost and would up at the Plaza del Salvador (?), which was farther away from Plaza Santa Cruz than we were when we started. After consulting the map, we started to make our way back eventually finding ourselves in a sunny little square (where the rest Carmela was) and then a few more turns and we were at Plaza Santa Cruz, which was a complete surprise because it was a little shaded park, rather than a real commercial Plaza. There were a couple of restaurants, but it was pretty sleepy looking, so we headed back to Plaza by the Calle Santa Maria La Blanca and sat down at a table in front of Restaurant/Bar Carmella and ordered the Plata del Dia, which was spinach and garbanzos, and some curried chicken. The espinaca was not quite as tasty as the one in Barcelona, but I sampled it and it was still good (no prosciutto and not as much garlic). I ordered a Cerveza Negra (Alhambra) which turned out to be very, very good. After this very late lunch, we did a little shopping and went back to Plaza Santa Cruz to pick up tickets for the Flamenco show at El Gallo.

We walked through a large park behind the Old Quarter and the Alcazar, towards the river. Among the highlights was a statue commemorating Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella. We walked in a loop, passing by the new light rail line, past the University and a Palace by the river, and then back to the cathedral area where we stopped and listened to some street musicians. The first was a solo singer-guitar player who had a tambourine contraption on his ankle that he used for percussion as he played some pretty good delta blues. He also had a little toy attached to his foot on a string that had Bart Simpson and one of the other Simpson’s and they appeared to dance as he tapped his foot.

Further up the street, we listened again to the quintet with guitar, drums, accordion, and fiddle playing old jazz tunes and standards. Tired after a full day, we wandered back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner and the evening ahead.

That evening, we went back to the Santa Cruz neighborhood for drinks, stopping at a couple of bars for drinks before having an outdoor dinner. Then we had a drink at a little bar Las Teresas, eventually ordering tapas of fresh local cheese. There was a local fellow next to us who was ordering tapas and Laura thought one looked pretty interesting, so she asked him what it was. He spoke very little English, but was a teacher and enjoyed trying to talk to us about Sevilla and his job. He was eating swordfish in a tomato sauce. By this time, it was getting close to the time for the Flamenco show, so we paid our bill and walked down to Plaza Santa Cruz and got in line for the show.

Inside, we sat next to and talked with a fellow from Mexico, who lived in Canada, who was in Spain on a business trip. He worked for Blackberry, doing something related to Bluetooth and had been at a Trade Show in Barcelona and was taking a little vacation to Malaga, Sevilla, and Granada before heading back to Canada. We enjoyed the show. I enjoyed the guitar playing in particular. I liked to watch the interplay between the two guitar players (there were two on almost every number). I can’t really say whether this was good Flamenco or not. It was after midnight when the show was done, so we followed the crowd through the narrow streets until we got to the Cathedral and then back to the hotel.

Oct 14

It was another chilly morning. After a breakfast of grilled cheese sandwiches and coffee, we headed over to the center of town to tour the Reales Alcazares, the ancient Royal Palace, built on top of a Muslim fortress, which was built on top of a Christian Basilica. According to many sources (including Rick Steves), despite being built over many centuries and undergoing extensive renovations from time to time, it is one of the best examples of the mudejar style, which “denotes a style of Iberian architecture and decoration, particularly of Aragon and Castile, of the 12th to 16th centuries, strongly influenced by Moorish taste and workmanship.” The mudejar were Muslims who remained in Spain after the reconquista, but who did not convert to Christianity. One of the most amazing features of this style is the intricate plasterwork decoration of the walls and arches, as well as the tile decoration on the walls and floors.
Another interesting part of the Palace was the rooms which Queen Isabella set aside to manage the trade with the New World. And so we were standing where Columbus, Magellan, Vasco De Gama and others met with the King and Queen and their ministers to discuss their future voyages.

We also spent a good deal of time in the gardens, some of the best in Sevilla, with a maze, tiled benches, and numerous fountains. It was very pleasant just to sit in this peaceful place.
We wandered back through the Santa Cruz neighborhood, along the wall of the Alcazar. There was a street musician performing local folk style guitar (with some flamenco influence) that I listened to for a few minutes while Laura wandered in one of the shops. We wound up eating lunch again at Restaurante Carmella. We ordered the Plata del Dia, which was some kind of potatoes in sauce, and I ordered a cannelloni tapas. There were too many carbs and it was not quite as memorable as the previous day. While we were finishing, an old guy hobbled up and sat down at the next table and pulled out a battered old guitar and started to play some flamenco or flamenco-influenced guitar. I took his picture and gave him a coin as we left. We walked back through the center of town and over to the Plaza Del Toros and Museum of Bullfighting to take the tour.

They give a brief tour of the Arena several times an hour. The stands are all made of brick and there are about 14,000 seats. When there is a bullfight the seats are categorized as “Sun” or “Shade”, with the shady seats being much more expensive. They showed us the gate where the matadors and toreadors enter the ring and the gate where the bulls are released. They showed us the Royal Box. And then they took us underneath the stands to see a small museum, with one room of paintings and drawings of bullfighting, including one by Goya that we did not get to see because they hurried us along to the next part of the museum, where they showed costumes and capes and talked about some of the history of bullfighting. According to the guide, it originated with the Romans, perhaps as a variant of the gladiator fights. It was re-introduced in Spain as part of training for the military and gradually developed into a spectator sport with professional matadors in the early 19th Century.

After visiting the museum, we walked across the boulevard to the river and walked down to the Torre del’Oro (Golden Tower), stopping to sit and have a drink and watch the sunset.
We decided to go back to the little tapas bar that we had stopped in the previous night, so we walked back into the heart of the Santa Cruz neighborhood and grabbed an outdoor table at the Bar Las Teresas. We ordered the cheese, but through a miscommunication with the waiter we got a large plate of cheese. Then a different waiter came out and when we asked about tapas, he said that tapas were only available inside. As a result, our meal was not as varied as we had intended. We ordered the swordfish in tomato sauce to go along with the cheese that we had already gobbled up.

After dinner, we walked back through the streets and stopped at another little bar for a drink. Later, on the way home we stopped at a little bar behind the Plaza de Toros and ordered tapas that turned out to be nothing like we expected. It was a soft cheese with sweet tomato marmalade, a specialty of the house. Live and learn.