This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life. I love it all!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sevilla and The Portuguese Algarve

Main gate to the Alcazar

We walked in the Santa Cruz neighborhood, a windy labyrinth of mostly pedestrian streets lined with shops, cafes, churches and plazas. People live here, too, in the flats over the street. It's easy to get lost wandering these streets. A map is a must if time is important.

The Alcazar
Our destination, beyond walking through this fascinating part of Seville, is to visit the Alcazar and the cathedral. We walked straight over to the Alcazar.

The Alcazar
This formerly Moorish palace was converted to a Christian king's palace after the Moors were thrown out of Sevilla. Fortunately, his architects had the good sense not to tear the palace down and start over. Many of the Moorish influences remain. It is still a palace today. I can't decide whether I like the the Alcazar better or the Alhambra in Grenada. The Alcazar is just stunning. I actually like the water features better here than the Alhambra. The room where Columbus returned from the New World to report on his discoveries, is in this palace. This is the place where Magellan planned his round the world voyage. Amazing! What history!
Seville Cathedral
Chris Columbus's final resting place

We stopped for lunch at Cafe Tomate,  where we got ripped off for the first time on our trip. We ordered several items off the menu boards all of which appeared to be tapas, which means they are usually smaller portions. Everything came to the table and looked great until we got the bill which was much higher than we expected.  Sure enough, we had been charged 10.50 for a plate with toast pieces topped with sliced tomatoes and a filet of anchovy. The waiter looks at us straight faced and went down the bill assuring us that this was a tapas and that was a tapa, but this wasn't and that wasn't. Then walked away despite our upset looks as if we should have known. He overcharged us by $20. He knew we wouldn't be back and that he had us. Lesson learned? Go to places only that are recommended by your tour book or a reputable on-line resource such as Trip Advisor.  There will be, at least some, payback when I write a review of the place on TripAdvisor.

Our daytime adventuring ended with a stop in the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. The side chapels and the main alter were covered in gilded gold, though not nearly on the scale of the cathedral, it is very nearly as equally beautiful.

Our final evening in Sevilla was spent taking in the flamenco show at Cafe de la Memoria. We'd read about this being a good example of traditional flamenco dance, guitar and singing. Only an hour in length, it starred a young guitarist, a male singer and  a male and female dancer. The female dancer was my favorite. She displayed such dramatic depth in her dancing. The look on her face during her solos displayed such a depth of sorrow as she moved her entire body to the rhythms of the guitar and the other two men who clapped out a counterpoint reflected in the determined tapping of her feet. It was a wonderful way to spend the evening and to bring our time in Sevilla to an end.

Tomorrow, we leave Spain for the Portuguese Algarve and a stay at the end of the world.

We managed to exit Seville without any of the problems we had getting in to find our hotel two days ago. My advice is either to avoid driving into this town completely, or make sure you are well prepared with your exact route to your intended destination before driving in. Have a navigator directing your every turn and then park your car and don't use it during your visit. Sevilla is not to be messed with when driving. Many streets are one way, others can't be driven down, turns right and left are unpredictable, streets often change names within blocks and it is quite common for no street name to be seen where they are normally, which is on the side of a building near the corner. Sound confusing? Try driving in Sevilla and you'll become a believer.

As I said, despite those frustrations we were able to get out of Sevilla without a hitch. We headed west and within about 2 hours we were crossing a river and entering Portugal. Another hour and a half along A22 and we turned off onto N125.

Salema fishing boats
We had decided to stop for lunch at a beach front restaurant in the quiet little village of Salema. After easily finding a spot to park, we walked up the promenade right next to the beach. The sea was aquamarine in color for a good two hundred yards out, then turned the more familiar blue sea color. This is the open Atlantic. Along the beach, Portuguese fisherman mended their nets, painted their little fishing boats pulled up on the beach, readying them for their next trip out into this rugged body of water. The heavy wooden boats looked stalwart but being only about 20 feet in length and completely open to the sea, it must be a pretty courageous seaman who takes his boats off these beaches.

Salema Restaurant
We'd picked out what sounded like a wonderful place but when we arrived we found out just how quiet the town was. The restaurant as well as a lot of other places were closed for the season. Some proprietors could be seen repainting their places but were not ready to open quite yet. Luckily we found our second choice was open. We picked out a table that looked out onto the beach only yards away. Boia Bar and Restaurant was pretty quiet but it was soon about half filled with other diners also in for their lunch. Our host insisted on speaking English and we soon found out why. We knew this area was frequented heavily by visitors from England anxious to get away to a sunnier climate. Every other diner in the restaurant was a Brit.

We ordered two glasses of the must try Vino Verde. For lunch we ordered a Salada Pulpo (octopus is pulpo) and the sea bass. The bass came out whole, head on along with perfectly cooked carrots, broccoli and little potatoes. On the side was a fresh green salad with thinly sliced onion, shredded carrot and tomato. The sea bass was sautéed to perfection, the skin crisp and the flesh creamy and firm. I swear it was just brought out of the sea. Two coffees served with a silver pitcher of steamed milk put the finishing touches on one of the best meals we had on our trip.

5 minutes back up the winding road that brought us down to Salema and we were back on the two lane highway for the few minutes further along to Sagres, our final destination for the day. We drove through this sleepy little town following the signs to the Pousada were we had reservations for the night.

The Pousada do Infante sits high on a cliff above the sea. These pousadas are often historic buildings owned by the Portuguese government but converted into lovely, usually rather pricey hotels. We found out this Pousada was actually built in 1960 so historic doesn't count here, but the location couldn't be more so. 

We got a really good off season deal. Our room deal, however, did not include a room with a view out to sea. That was another 15.  Eh, we can walk to see the view. So we asked the very nice desk clerk to give us the best room without a view. He laughed and then led us to our second floor room. He opened the door for us, we rolled our luggage in, he thanked us and closed the door. I headed across the room to open the window. But when I flung open the drapes, there spread out in front of us, was a view out to sea in all directions. Oh my! I think we'll just stay in tonight! We got room 225 on the second floor.

That view was too good to resist and we decided to head out on a hike to the end of the peninsula. The End of World it is called, or rather as it was called in the day of Prince Henry the Navigator, who chose to build his school of navigation on the peninsula just across the bay from the one our Pousada sits on. But we are on Cape Sagres, the furthest southwest point in all of Europe.

Sagres Pousada do Infante
We walked out along the cliff edge that drops into the sea a hundred feet or more below.   Rolling waves crash along the rocky ledges below. We didn't get too close lest we join the fishes below. But the views, the wild flowers hugging the ground on this windswept terrain, the ice plant, the azaleas. In fact so many familiar plants are growing here that I wonder if they were brought to the Pacific coast or if they were brought here from there. 

Our walk took us to the very edge. We can walk no further. We had arrived at what those who lived in Europe in the 1400's thought of as the end of the world. Looking out to sea from this vantage point and considering what those intrepid explorers knew about the world, what they had for technology to take them across that great unknown sea hoping to discover new lands, is just awe inspiring. It is humbling, even overwhelming. How did they do it? What an amazing level of self-confidence, curiosity and courage they must have possessed to have attempted those voyages so long ago in vessels with no technology beyond the sextant, no margin of safety, no coast guard chopper to fly to their rescue, no GPS! And when they got to the other side, they had to turn around and do it all again going the other way.
We decided to picnic it out on our terrace here at our hotel for dinner. Such a tremendous view deserved to be savored. So we drove over to the Inter Marche market we saw coming into town. We knew it would have normal prices since locals shop there. We picked up several freshly sliced meats, a couple of local cheeses, some olives (so cheap here), some nice bread and some flan. It was enough food to allow us to picnic again tomorrow on our way to Evora. 

It was a lovely evening sitting out, watching the sun set over the sea, munching on some local delicacies along with a nice bottle of red wine. Eventually it got pretty chilly and we decided it was time to head in, relax in the room and read before turning in for the night. Another amazing day, our first here in a brand new country for us--Portugal!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Ronda and Gibraltar

Today we headed into Ronda, probably the most famous of the white hill towns dotting this country side. It sits perched on a cliff over looking a beautiful valley below and surrounded on three sides by a river which runs through a gorge which cuts through the mountain on which the town sits. 

Beautiful Ronda perched on a mountain top.
I am sitting in the shade of an old cypress as I write this entry. The bell in the moorish-style bell tower of what was once a minaret for the mosque that once stood here, strikes one o'clock over the Plaza Santa Maria La Mayor.  The beautiful old Church of Santa Maria La Mayor stood here before the Christian reconquest of Ronda in 1487. It was transformed into a Catholic church but retains some of its moorish, north African architecture.

The plaza is surrounded by quaint shops selling Spanish ceramics, brass objects and art prints. Small cafes dot the square. Locals sit out under cypress and orange trees sipping their morning cafe de leches, reading the morning paper or carrying on animated conversations. A 15th century convent sits on another corner, one other church in another and the town hall takes up one other entire side facing the square.

Imagine walking down a tree lined street where the trees are orange trees covered in sweet, ripe oranges. Just reach up and pluck one from the tree. It's okay.

The Plaza Santa Maria La Mayor
A soft breeze blows through the plazas and up the side streets of Ronda cooling you as you climb to the next look out. You turn a corner and a railing is all that is between you and the river Guadalevin flowing several hundred feet below and through the gorge upon which Ronda is built. For centuries this river, flowing around three sides of town, has offered Rondaites at least temporary security from one invader or another. However, modern day invaders are welcomed with open, friendly arms to explore these same, protective ramparts. The Moorish Swords and spears of 500 years ago have been replaced by the modern day hordes of tourists brandishing Euros and cameras.

We stopped in the central square after having spent most of the day wandering the side streets, popping into this shop and that, to order a cano, a tinto de verano and a few tapas. I intend to find out how to make that tinto de verano when we get home. It was a very refreshing red wine based drink.

We walked on up Calle Molino to where we had parked our VW Polo right on the street saving us the 15 parking fee.

The hill town of Grazelema
We considered calling it day and heading back to our room but decided one more hill town might be possible, so we headed off cross country towards Grazalema. The twisting road up to Grazalema took us through the national park and a forest of cork trees which were being harvested as was evidenced by the lack of bark on the trunks of the trees.    

Turning a corner in the windy road, the white washed walls of Grazelema stood out on the edge of a cliff above the valley we drove through. A few more hair-pin turns and we arrived in this quaint, postcard perfect hill town. Absolutely nothing was going on. A few people sat table side in the city square having an afternoon coffee. Otherwise, it was a quiet, sleepy little town, just as we had been told it was. None of the commercialism of Ronda. Just people living quiet lives in the middle of a perfect nowhere. We wandered about the center of town, taking a few photos and then hopped back in the car to head on back to our retreat at the hotel.

This has been an incredible day. We both wish we could have a few more days here to explore more of this villages and to relax here at this lovely hotel.

Reasons for traveling off season:

1.    The summer crowds are gone.
2.    Prices for hotels drops significantly.
3.    No waiting at great restaurants.
4.    Car rentals are cheaper.
5.    The big attractions can be savored at a slower pace.
6.    People aren't competing for that perfect photograph.
7.    Very few American voices and lots more local's voices to be heard.
8.    No lines.
9.    The weather isn't hot letting you see things in a season other than summer.

Cable car ride to the top
We decided to pop in on the British colony of Gibraltar today on the way to Sevilla. Since I was a little boy and found out that the rock symbol the Prudential Insurance Company was a real place, I have wanted to see it for my self.  I also have an odd quirk about going to geographic places that have some odd geographic importance. Four corners, the tip of Cape Cod, Cape Flattery, the southern most point of Hawaii. I like to be able to say, when I point it out on a map, that I have stood on that point. Weird? It gives me chills to be able to say I have stood at the closest spot to Africa from Europe or I have stood on the beach at the very tip of Cape Cod. Yeah, weird, huh?

We drove from beautiful Ronda back down the windy road to the Costa del Sol where we turned west. About an hour down the coast we got our first glimpse of the rock of Gibraltar.  It sits right at the closest point to Africa only 15 miles across the Strait go Gibraltar. 

We had to get in a line of cars and cross the border. Though Gibraltar is a small colony plopped down in Spain, it is all British. No Euros here. Pounds only. Signs all in English. We had to drive across the runway of the airport in order to get into the one town. 

Our destination was the parking lot for the cable car taking us to the top of "The Rock." For a small fee, except for very windy conditions, you take a very steep cable car ride up the side of the  mountain to an observation building with stunning views in all directions. To the south across the Mediterranean Sea, on a clear day, is Morocco.

Here and there around the grounds up here, the famous Barbary Macaques scamper around getting into all sorts of mischief, including jumping on tourists that get a little too familiar or are offering food (something tourists are officially not supposed to offer). Dozens of these monkeys make this mountain their home and their waste is being rinsed off by employees quite often. Other than that amazing view, they are the big attraction up here. 

We spent an hour or so wandering around the mountain top taking pictures and interacting with the monkeys  before heading back down the mountain. We drove around the mountain and out to a lighthouse and viewpoint. The wind seems to be always present but Gibraltar is nevertheless a stunning place and worth going out of your way to see.   

Now, on to Sevilla!