This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Holy Toledo!

Holy Toledo! Okay, I won't say that again. But this is an amazing city. After breakfast in our hotel, we headed first for the Catedral de Toledo only a block away. No photos! Oh yeah, well how come everyone is taking them? So I did too. No flash, just crank up the film speed and hold on tight to a pillar or pew. I got some great shots. This has to be one of the top cathedrals in all of Europe. I know it is high on my list. Everywhere you look are works of art, statuary, paintings, metal and cloth artifacts, masterpieces all. Point the camera and shoot. You'll probably get a great picture. It's that amazing.

From the carved choir seats, the stained glass, the stunning opening to the sunlight cut through the ceiling to shine down on the people below, past sculptured figures of angels and saints high up in sculpted clouds, it is just overwhelming. The Catholics of that time certainly never heard the words: conspicuous and wealth.

Next we walked over to a museum that seemed to be basically the museum of Toledo. It housed artifacts from the earliest times through to the end of the 19th century. Very nice Roman artifacts, tiles, sculpture, painted planks of wood, sepulchers, plus a large collection of paintings including a number by El Greco, who found fame and fortune here in Toledo.

Lunch was at Restaurante Palacios where we shared a soup called Judias con Perdiz or bean soup with partridge. It basically tasted like our American navy bean soup but had chunks of partridge, a local specialty here. Mostly you picked bones out of your mouth due to the fact that there are more of those than meat on a partridge. Then I ordered my second Cochinillo asado (had it in Segovia if you remember), roasted suckling pig. Leslie ordered Pollo asado. Both were delicious and came with a side of sliced potato in a rich brown sauce. A bottle of so so wine and a bottle of agua con gaz and we were set. Out the door for only 39. Holy Toledo! For lunch? Oops! Said it again!
Funny street sign in Toledo...Spain!

We wandered a bit more around a couple of other squares before I had Leslie drop me off at the hotel. I need to catch up on laundry before we leave Spain and head for Canada and I have 3 days for it to dry here. We'll go out exploring some more tonight.

Well, my tummy had other plans than to do more exploring this evening so we stayed in and made our plan for the last day in Toledo.

Our final day, we grabbed our city maps and headed off towards the north end of Toledo looking for a couple of mosques. We found the first one which turned out to be an art store selling glass plates and jewelry and playing rock music. The store just happened to be a mosque at one time. Little existed that would lead you to believe it was ever such a thing. Disappointing.

We walked up and down several streets trying to find the other mosque shown on the map but couldn't find it or perhaps we weren't looking in the right street. The city maps are not always very helpful.

Next, we headed off in the direction of the old Jewish quarter. Again, very little exists of that once rather large section of the city. Beginning in the late 1400's the Sephardic Jews were basically given a choice which was to convert to Catholicism or get out of town. Some converted, others left heading to other regions of North Africa, the Middle East and northern Europe.

The Sephardic Museum is housed in a former synagogue and parts of the ornate walls and the beautifully decorated ceiling are still in tact. There is also a nice little exhibit of the traditional clothing, jewelry and holy artifacts. I enjoyed the little museum but when all was said and done, I couldn't get over the fact that the Jews and Muslims were treated so poorly by the racist views of the Church that persisted well into the 20th century. After all, the Catholics were killing Jews in the 15th century and the Nazis took over in the 20th.

We bought a lovely picnic lunch and took it back to our hotel and ate out on the balcony off the breakfast room with a great view across the rooftops of the city. The sun was bright and warm. We leave Spain with the trees beginning to leaf out, spring flowers are blooming and the temperature, though still a bit chilly at night, is warming up nicely during the day. And we can't help noticing that the crowds of tourists seem to be growing significantly. When we arrived 3 weeks ago, we often found ourselves the lone Americans in a town or village and few others save locals or Spanish and Portuguese on holiday. Even the Brits who so commonly inhabit the the Costa del Sol and the Algarve, were few in number. We really felt like the place was ours. But since arriving in Toledo, the crowds have definitely grown.

My biggest surprise is the growing number of Chinese tourists. Where for decades of European travel it has always been bus loads of Japanese tourists, now the newly affluent Chinese are beginning to discover travel. It is wonderful to see though I recently read that due to the influx of Chinese travelers the prices in hotels has risen as space availability has shrunk due to demand. Still, the more people travel, the smaller the world gets. You can't travel and not begin to better understand other cultures. Sitting in a plaza in Toledo watching a young family playing, a group of old men having a laugh as they argue over a game of bocce ball or groups of young people from different cultures laugh and sing together, you can't help but grow more understanding, tolerant and to realize we are all much more alike than different.
Tonight we went out to rambla through streets of Toledo one last time. Stopped to have dinner in a small square. Restaurante Alcazar turned out to be a good location and good service but the food was awful. Grabbed a fresh hot baguette and a couple of waters in a store on the square and rambla'ed back to the hotel. We are both packed except for the last personal items to go in the bags in the morning. Then we rambla uphill back to the car park and head for Consuegra, heart of La Mancha before going to our airport hotel in Madrid.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Segovia and The Valley of the Fallen

On our way to Segovia today. A quick stop to walk a bit through Avila, a walled town with what must be one of the best restored city walls anywhere in Europe. It looks brand new but has been standing since the 12th century. It is also the location of the convent of Saint Teresa. Not much else to report on there but it is a lovely city.

The convent of Saint Teresa
Moved on to Segovia. Had our usual issues with finding our way into the old city. So many one way streets and traffic signs directing you not to enter here or turn there. We finally found our way with the help of a couple of folks. Our hotel, Hotel Infanta Isabel, room 308, sits right on the Plaza Mayor at the highest point of the city. The cathedral is right out our window as is a lively bustling plaza filled with folks out strolling or shopping.

We ate at Meson Don Jimeno Restaurante down a little side street on the way down to the Alcazar. We were the only ones in the place which was a bit scary since we had no advice as to whether it was good or bad. But they unlike most other restaurants at that hour, we're open and they were serving the two dishes we were hoping to try while here in Segovia--Cochinillo asado, roasted suckling of pig, and Judiones de la Granja, a bean and bacon stew. We also tried their pig pate and a wonderful bottle of 2009 Tempernillo vinted by Zarraguilla cellars near Segovia.

View from our room in Segovia
The meal was wonderful. Whether the dishes were prepared correctly or not, since we have no frame of reference, they were just delicious. The pork was so rich, the skin crunchy and golden brown. The Graja was deeply satisfying with white beans the shape of large limas and thick slices of bacon that had to have been simmering all day with those beans. Wow!

Tomorrow we head for our last city in Spain--Toledo. On the way we will tour the Valley of the Fallen and drive around Madrid on the way south. Three days in Toledo and we head back to the Madrid airport to turn in our rental car and spend one last night near the airport before our flight to Toronto.

Our three weeks has gone by so quickly here, but we are looking forward to our two weeks in the Canadian eastern cities, Vermont and New York. Lots more travel yet to come.

As I said, our short stay in Segovia was followed by a big day heading to Toledo.

Had a breakfast of coffee con leche and a croissant at the cafe right next door to our hotel. Then packed up and headed out of Segovia. It is a lovely, compact town with lots going on. Love to return someday.

El Escorial
Our next stop was El Escorial, city infamous for the Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Built by King Phillip II as a palace, he also directed the Inquisition from here. It is a giant, depressing building built at the cost of a generation of Spain's wealth. It is a museum now. The areas open to the public are filled with art from that period. Other displays focus on the construction of the building and in still others you descend into the crypts of former royalty and their offspring. Even the basilica's decor reflects the sparse and dreary nature of the times, most parts looking like they were built of cinder block and the grey walls are most of what greets you. The alter is the main focus and though lovely it is still nothing really spectacular. I most enjoyed the library near the end of the tour.  Thousands of books line the walls and down the middle are globes and other artifacts of interest. My favorite being the armillary sphere which reflected the thinking at the time of the earth being at the center of the known universe and the known planets circle around it. It is a beautiful, but obviously flawed instrument.
Plaza outside El Escorial

After a quick lunch in town, we headed for the Valle de Los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen only a few km down the road from El Escorial.

The turn off to the monument in the Valley of  the Fallen is right along the road to El Escorial. A large granite gate marks the spot and a two lane road leads a few km up into the pine forested Guadarrama Mountains. As you cross a bridge, off to the right on a hilltop is the 500 foot cross built from the granite carved out of the hill to create the basilica and monument below.

Plaza and entrance to the Basillica of the fallen
The cross above the Valley of the Fallen Monument
It is a disturbing place to visit due to the fact that it is not only the tomb for some 50,000 of the dead from the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1939, but also because at the high alter are buried both The founder of Spanish fascism and General Franco, the man who is responsible for starting the civil war and even accepting the help of Nazi Germany to kill thousands of civilians. Behind the alter and in two side chapels, locked behind closed doors are the 50,000 who died for god and country from both sides. Franco is the focus in this basilica however and that is what most disturbs me. It would seem to me somewhat like going to visit Hitler's grave were there one to visit. Who, other than neo-nazis would visit such a place? We both left disturbed and scratching our heads over this monument to fascism. I'd love to talk with a Spaniard who could explain this place.

The sad thing today was that none of the places we stopped to see would allow photography inside the buildings so I have little to show for El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen. I snuck a couple of photos inside El Escorial. I don't know what the harm is in taking non-flash photography. It hurts nothing and any copyrighted material became public domain long ago.

Leslie in front of our hotel in Toledo
Our final stop in Spain was Toledo, a city named a national monument and a UN World Heritage site. It sits on a hilltop south of Madrid so we had to travel a bit over ground we had already taken a train through near the beginning of our trip. But we didn't want to miss this city so we drove the hour or so out of our way to make sure we saw it.

We found our hotel very quickly after parking the car in a public lot. La Posada de Manolo sits on quiet, winding Calle Sixto Ramon Perro. We got a room with a small balcony. No view but there is a lovely courtyard view out another window. It is a lovely room and it will be our home for the next 3 days.