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MNTravelogue
THE BEST OF SPAIN


By Wilfredo R. Valenzuela
Photos by Arnel Rivera, Betina Rivera, Cindy Valenzuela, Wilfredo Valenzuela and Eddie Flores
May 15 – 26, 2013
 




My sister Quiding and her husband Eddie in the Netherlands arranged our bus tour of Spain through their favorite tried-and-true Netherlands-based tour operator Peter Langhout.  The bus picked us up at their house.  The other passengers seemed amused as one by one our international group of 14 came out of the house and boarded the bus.  As Quiding finally locked the front door, the Dutch passengers must have wondered how we all fit in this one house.  We wondered about that, too.  All of us out-of-towners arrived in the Netherlands the previous week --- Cindy, Danny, Kaye, Bettina and Anna from the Philippines; Rico and Frieda from Australia; Arnel, Ginny, Boy, Teng and I from America.

I looked forward to our family’s tour of Spain for several reasons.  It had been many years since the last time I visited the country.  The company during the trip was guaranteed to be entertaining.  The Philippines was under Spanish rule for almost 400 years, so Filipinos are familiar with Spanish culture and Castilian Spanish, many words of which are embedded in the Filipino language.  The Iberian nation is divided into regions called autonomous communities (Comunidades Autónomas de España) which offer engaging diversity in culture, climate, landscape and language.  We would experience the diversity while touring some of Spain’s autonomous communities including the Basque Country, Castile and León, Madrid, Castile-La Mancha, Andalusia, Valencia, and Catalonia.
 
Gunther our Belgian tour bus driver was competent, efficient and reliable.  After an overnight stop in France, we reached Cestona, a small hilly town in Spain’s Basque Country by the Pyrenees. 

We spent the night in Cestona after taking a walk in the old town center, visiting its 16th century church, and buying some jamón serrano and jamón ibérico (Spanish ham) to go with our wine late in the evening.  Each night before retiring for bed, we would congregate in one of our hotel rooms to enjoy the wine and jamón while telling jokes and recalling the highlights of the day.

The following day in Burgos, our friendly guide Carlota met us at the bus stop and led us to the Arco de Santa María, the medieval gate of the old city of Burgos in Castile and León.  Inside the elaborately sculpted gate, Carlota gave us a tour of the Gothic cathedral Santa María de Burgos
 
Gothic cathedral Santa María de Burgos
 

Construction of the vast cathedral began in the 13th century.  It was completed more than 300 years later.  Inside the Burgos cathedral is the tomb of the Spanish national hero El Cid.  The ornately built cathedral is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site which houses a collection of art work including sculptures, paintings and tapestries.  We had a variety of delicious tapas (Spanish appetizers) for lunch in Burgos.

We experienced all seasons during the trip.  We encountered wintry snow on our way from Burgos to Madrid, and sweated in the summerlike heat under the sun as we strolled in Sevilla (Seville) and Valencia.  My brother Danny’s granddaughter Kaye was thrilled to see falling snow for the first time.
 
After a quick bus tour around Madrid with our guide Josephine, we continued to see the city on foot in the neighborhood around Calle Mayor, one of Madrid’s main thoroughfares.  Madrid, Spain’s capital, is located in the center of both the country and the autonomous community bearing the same name.  Late lunches and dinners are typical in Madrid.  We enjoyed a late lunch of tapas once more, with tasty porras and churros (Spanish fried dough pastries) dipped in thick hot chocolate for dessert. 
 
Along Madrid’s main thoroughfare
 

I was keen on seeing a bullfight during the trip.  I did not get to watch one in previous visits.  This time, Danny and I were able to get the last two tickets at a ticket sales counter in the city center for the day’s Corrida de Toros (Bullfight) in Madrid’s Plaza de Toros de las Ventas.  The enormous 25,000-seat arena was full that evening.  Even the sol seats which face the sun were sold out.   Our seats on the sombra (shaded) side were a bit pricy but well worth the unique experience.  The glaring sun did not spoil our view of the spectacle, and we saw most of the ritualistic action close up, since the toreros executed most of the performance on the sombra side.  We came out of the arena with mixed emotions – admiration for the skill and grace of the toreros, especially the matador, and pity for the toros bravos, all six bulls, one after another, which stayed on the attack even after they were rendered bloodied, weak and panting short of breath before the matador’s final blow with his sword into the bull’s heart. 

After watching the bullfight, Danny and I rejoined the family for a savory dinner of cocido madrileño (Madrid’s meat and chickpea stew) and other Spanish dishes.  Danny’s wife Cindy quipped that the cocido madrileño is the best dish she has ever had in her life.  Kaye asked for my camera to see the pictures and movies I took of the bullfight.  She was disappointed that she did not get to go.
 

The following day, we proceeded to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Toledo the capital of Castile-La Mancha.  Toledo is an old city of rich cultural heritage where Christians, Muslims and Jews coexisted for centuries.  Our young guide Javier directed Gunther to an overlook with a picture postcard view of the Tajo (Tagus) River snaking around the mountaintop city with its dominant features, the imposing Alcázar castle-fortress and the prominent Gothic cathedral. 
 
 
Panoramic view of Toledo
 

Then starting at Zocodover, an ancient market which is now the town plaza, Javier took us to a walking tour of the maze-like  streets of Toledo, giving us a friendly warning not to get separated because it is very easy to get lost in the small streets of the hilly town.  The last stop of the walking tour was at the El Greco museum.  The Greek painter moved to Toledo and lived the rest of his life there where he produced many of his most famous paintings.  We decided to go inside the museum while Javier returned to Zocodover.  We should have heeded his warning more closely.  We lost our bearing from the El Greco museum to Zocodover, and barely had enough time for a quick lunch before Gunther arrived to pick us up.
 
 
 

After spending the night in Andujar, we traveled to Córdoba in Andalusia (Andalucía) to see the Mezquita, the magnificent mosque–cathedral of Córdoba, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The mosque built in the 9th and 10th centuries was converted to a cathedral in the 13th century when Córdoba was conquered by King Ferdinand III from the Muslims. 
 

Our tour guide Cora pedantically told us historical facts about the Mesquita, and at one point cautioned that she would stop talking unless we were all listening.  Before we entered the Mezquita, she admonished Danny who got overzealous upon seeing a fruit laden orange tree and tried to climb it.  We worried that she might give him a spanking.  With or without Cora’s lecture, the Mezquita is a site to behold. 
 
Mesquita
 

In Córdoba, we ate seafood in a restaurant that bears Anna’s last name, Ordoñez.  The proprietor welcomed us with great kindness.
 
Tour of Cordoba and lunch at Restorante Ordonez
 

We spent the night in Sevilla the capital of Andalusia.  Included in Spain’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the Alcázar Palace and the Cathedral of Sevilla where the tomb of Christopher Columbus lies.  Our tour guide Sergio took us to these sites as well as the beautiful Plaza de España.  We enjoyed an excellent lunch of paella, a Spanish dish of rice and seafood with saffron and olive oil, prepared right in front of us in a huge cooking pan.  The meal was capped once again with churros dipped in hot thick chocolate.

Córdoba and Sevilla are located by the river Guadalquivir.  Like Córdoba, Sevilla was conquered by the Muslims but taken by King Ferdinand III during his conquest of Andalusia.  The Mudéjar style of Islamic art which is evident in Sevilla emerged in the 12th century with the Christian conquest of the territories in southern Spain that were previously dominated by the Moors.  Mudéjar primarily used brick combined with elaborate tiling patterns and geometric designs.  As Javier our Toledo guide explained to us, the Mudéjar style melded the Muslim and Christian cultures that coexisted in the conquered territories.  The coexistence of the two cultures allowed the fusion and preservation of Islamic and Christian art in Spain. 
 
Our next stop was Granada, situated in a picturesque location at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Andalusia.  Granada’s biggest attraction is the Moorish citadel-palace complex of Alhambra, arguably Spain’s most famous Islamic architecture.  Our knowledgeable guide Gerardo gave us a tour of Alhambra as well as the adjacent Generalife gardens, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Also in Alhambra is the Renaissance style Palace of St. Charles V.
 
Moorish Citadel Alhambra in Granada
 

The calm reflection pools, refreshing water fountains and lush floral gardens of Alhambra and Genaralife offer a tranquil and relaxing environment.  Outside, the Alhambra looks simple but solid. 
 
Alhambra
 

Inside, the Palacios Nazaríes (Nasrid Palaces) have wall and ceiling decorations consisting of intricate geometric patterns, foliage carvings and Arabic calligraphy.  The Palacios Nazaríes were built during the Nasrid dynasty, the last Muslim dynasty in Spain which lasted until the late 15th century when it was defeated by the Catholic kingdoms of Aragon and Castile ruled by Ferdinand and Isabella. 


 
Inside Alhambra
 

 
Alhambra garden
 

After staying overnight in Alicante, we spent a few hours in Valencia on our way to Barcelona.  Valencia, the capital of Spain’s autonomous community with the same name and the country’s third largest city after Madrid and Barcelona, lies along the Mediterranean coast.  We took a walk near the medieval Quart Towers (Torres de Quart) in the old lively neighborhood of Barrio del Carmen.

 We enjoyed another delicious Spanish lunch after shopping at the Mercado Central.  Cindy and her brother Arnel, who are excellent cooks, wanted to bring home some Spanish cuisine spices like azafrán (saffron).  In halting Spanish, I inquired in a coffee shop where we could buy food items like azafrán and bacalao (salted cod).  Without hesitation, the coffee shop attendant replied “El Mercado Central” (the Central Market).  It turned out that one could find just about everything in Valencia’s huge and busy central market nearby.  Arnel and Cindy could have shopped for hours, but we did not have the time.  However, they got their top quality azafrán and tasty bacalao to bring home.

In the evening, we reached Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia our final destination in Spain.  The following day, we toured Barcelona in our bus before our guide Marjelle led us to Park Güell, a public park designed by the well-known architect Antoni Gaudí. 
 
 
 
 

Danny treated us to lunch in Puerta de Avila for his birthday before we went to a viewpoint on the hill of Montjuïc for a panoramic view of Barcelona.  From the hilltop, the prominent landmark Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia church was visible afar and clearly identifiable. 
 
 
 

We spent the afternoon in Las Ramblas, a bustling promenade lined with trees and shops.  While the women shopped, the men relaxed over San Miguel beer at Plaza de Cataluña, Barcelona’s popular expansive central square, before heading back towards the Columbus Monument at the Port of Barcelona where Gunther was waiting for us with the bus.   A day, which was all we had, is nowhere near enough to see the sprawling Catalan city.
 
 
 

Our tour of Spain ended the following day as we said goodbye to Arnel, Ginny, Rico and Frieda who stayed behind in Barcelona before spending a few more days of vacation in Portugal. 
 
Peter Langhout’s Best of Spain group, with our driver/guide Gunther (front-4th-right) flanked by the remaining 9 members of the Rivera-Valenzuela-Flores group

The rest of us headed back to the Netherlands, looking forward to another family tour in the not too distant future. …..
 
Rico and Frieda Rivera Enriquez
 

with suggestion from couple Rico and Frieda…..”why not come and visit us Down-Under…
and see beautiful  Sydney, Melbourne and Wellington  in winter time!!!

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