Spain Smorgasbord

By the 8th day of our Grand Circle tour, we had visited Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Cordoba, and Torremolinos, with a side trip to the very British Gibraltar. Next on our itinerary was Malaga, but Mike and I decided to engage in an Australian tradition and “Chuck A Sickie”. For those of you that didn’t have the pleasure of spending two weeks with an Australian Global Volunteer, that term roughly translates to “Playing Hooky”.

Although the Costa del Sol averages over 300 days of sunshine per year, today was the first time I needed to wear my sun hat.

I’m sure our fellow travelers had a perfectly marvelous day enjoying the sights of Malaga, and the home hosted lunch in a nearby village as much as Mike and I enjoyed spending the morning strolling along the beach, taking in sights like this.

I would have loved to see what this tribute to Elvis looked like before the rain decapitated him.

But what about those other glorious cities?  Don’t worry, I’ll do a little flashback, with visuals.

We got just enough of a taste to determine that one of these days, we will be back to those lovely cities, and next time, we will linger.  

Our time in Toledo was limited to a few hours enroute to Granada. The old city sits 6 escalator rides above the new city, and let me tell you, we were all very grateful we didn’t have to climb all the way up the hill in the rain.



Even after we arrived at the “top”, we still had some hills to climb.

Our stroll through Toledo’s Jewish quarter ended at the oldest synagogue in Europe. This unique building was constructed by Moors, because at that time they were reputed to be the best builders.   Of course, they were not familiar with synagogue construction, so the Jews ended up with a building that had a distinctive Muslim flavor.


Notice the cross?  This building is a reminder that at one time, all three religions were able to peacefully coexist—pre Ferdinand and Isabella reign.

For anyone planning a trip to Toledo, please be aware it is much more than amazing history, great food and panoramic vistas.  Thrill seekers, take a look.


Maybe next time, if it isn’t raining…

One of the many things that I love about traveling with Grand Circle and OAT is the unexpected stops along the way.  We had a bathroom and refreshment break in Puerto Lápice, a little village in Castille La Mancha, where we discovered a three room Don Quixote museum.

Because I spent so much time in the museum, I had to order my glass of wine “to go”, which I proudly did in Spanish.   An important phrase: “para llevar”.  But the effect was spoiled, just a bit, when the bartender started speaking to me in perfect English.

Not surprisingly, most of our time in Granada was spent at the Alhambra.  Okay, so we all know that Washington Irving wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but how many know that he also was instrumental in saving the Alhambra from being destroyed?  His “Tales of the Alhambra” caused the Spaniards to take a second look at what is now the most visited attraction in Spain.


Alhambra ( Al = “the” in Arabic ) is a palace, a fortress, a small city, overlooking Granada.  Unfortunately, when Napoleon conquered Spain, his soldiers removed all of the furniture, rugs and tapestries, ( I believe the correct term is “looted”) but the walls, ceilings and courtyards give you a hint of the grandeur that once existed.   Check out the ceiling in the women’s quarters.


The exteriors of Moorish buildings were very plain. All of the ornamentation was inside, in the private spaces, like these beautiful courtyards.



The Moors ruled Spain for almost 800 years, and their impact on the Spanish language continues today.  Many places begin with “Gua”, like Guadalcanal, Guatemala, Guanajuato — all derived from the Arabic word for water.

Another city with beautiful Moslem architecture is Cordoba.  The Roman temple/Church/Mosque/Cathedral is an architectural wonder.  Walking through its spacious interior, you literally travel through time, starting with the preserved Roman tiles, below the existing floor—


to the former mosque, built with recycled columns, which was wisely preserved by the Catholics —


and now is in the center of the mosque.


In this photo, you can see the Mosque’s red and white arches next to the cathedral’s main altar.

Cordoba is magnificent!


The church’s bell tower was constructed around the minaret.

I guess some place has to be the least favorite, and for me, Gibraltar gets that honor.  Maybe it was because the limestone WW2 tunnels were dripping water, and were dark and gloomy,


One of the few places that wasn’t too dark or wet to photograph

as was the weather.


Whatever the reason, I was not as wowed as I was by the other places we’d visited.  Even the Barbary apes were a disappointment.  We only saw four.

78E241BD-2388-4088-9601-C9A028433F2BTwo more days in Spain, three in Portugal, and then we are back to the USA.

Goodbye Beja, Hello Madrid

It was raining when I boarded the bus in Beja for the two and a half ride to Lisbon. The weather matched my mood–I was sad to leave all the new friends I’d made in Beja: the wonderful students I’d gotten to know during our two weeks together, the great “Team of Ten” Volunteers, our fantastic team leader. There were lots and lots of goodbye hugs.

Note to future visitors to Portugal–it costs only 14 Euros for a bus ride from Lisbon to Beja, on a super comfortable bus with free Wi-Fi. If you are visiting Lisbon, why not spend a night or two in Beja? Escape the traffic and crowds, enjoy the history, archaeology and cultural treasure of this intriguing Alentejo town.

Two cab rides and a flight later, I was in Madrid, reunited with my main man.

Here’s where we will be traveling over the next two weeks. First stop is Madrid. ( I lifted the map off the Grand Circle website. THEY are the ones that cut Madrid a little too closely.) The star is my feeble attempt to show the approximate location of Beja. You now have a rough idea of where this “don’t miss” town is located. Okay, so I would never be a successful map maker, but I give myself an A for effort.

The long, unusually dry period Portugal and Spain had been going through ended during our second week in Beja. The rain is expected to continue during most of our remaining trip. Oh well. They need the water, so the rain is a blessing. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

We spent the morning of our first full day in Madrid on a bus tour around the city. First stop, the Egyptian temple of Denbod. No, this was not stolen during a military campaign. Had it not been moved, stone by stone, when the Aswan Dam was created, it would have been under water, just like the Temple of Dendur, in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.


Next stop– the royal palace, where we arrived just in time for the changing of the guard.

Juanjo, our guide, had warned us to be on the lookout for pick pockets. He explained they usually look like tourists, holding maps or cameras with one hand and reaching into your backpack with the other. Well, Linda, a member of our group, saw one doing just that, to a Chinese tourist. She was close enough to slap the pick pocket’s hand away.

A lot of good those guards were! A sharp eyed American woman with quick reflexes foiled the thief. Did I witness any of the excitement? No, I was my usual oblivious self.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to wander through any of the 2,800 rooms in this Versailles inspired palace. Instead, we decided to spend the afternoon in the Prado Museum, ogling the artwork by Goya, el Greco, Rubens and others.

Small part of the royal palace

My only regret: I wish I had researched the Prado more thoroughly, so I could have focused on certain pieces, and figured out the most efficient way to get to them. Talk about sensory overload! No photos were allowed inside the museum. I just have to be content with the images inside my head.

Although we could have spent our second day exploring more of Madrid, we chose the optional guided tour to El Escorial. This palace/ monastery/ school/ church was constructed by King Francis II, son of Charles V, one of the Holy Roman Emperors. The Escorial is shaped like a grill (yes, as in George Forman) to honor Spain’s own St. Lawrence. Why a grill, you ask? Well, that is how he met his end, by being roasted to death. (Yes, humans are strange and savage creatures)

I didn’t use a drone. I bought a postcard and photographed it.

Philip II had the building designed  so that he could lay in his bed and see the altar in the cathedral.  All he had to do was open his bedroom door and he was in church. Because his bedroom was off to the side, the rest of the congregation couldn’t see HIM in his pajamas (or whatever Kings wore back then).

Philip’s chamber, including the bed he died in, and his chamber pot, were all part of the tour, in case you’re wondering, as is a huge painting of St. Lawrence on the griddle.

We also visited the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial to those who died during the Spanish Civil War. This was a truly impressive and very moving site.

The memorial consists of the largest cross in the world, under which a Basilica has been carved — out of the hillside.  It is hard to gauge the size of the memorial from this photo, but to give you an idea, the cross alone is 500 feet high.

The bones of around 40,000 people are buried In the basilica.  One more example of man’s inhumanity to man.

Time to move on, to Toledo and Granada, even though there was much more to see and do in the beautiful city of Madrid.

Beja, Portugal’s Hidden Gem

Tired of touristy places? Want an “authentic”experience, where the locals are friendly, gracious and actually happy to see you? Yet ANOTHER advantage of serving as a Global Volunteer is the organization finds these places FOR you –places I would probably never would have discovered on my own.

I feel like I’ve been dropped into a magical spot. The lovely city of Beja just oozes charm. Its cobblestone streets haphazardly lead in many different directions, much worse than in Boston. Who would have thought that was even possible? Fortunately, in Beja, you can WALK everywhere–to work assignments, to dinner, for coffee, to the bus station, to its many attractions.

Streets are pretty quiet before 9 AM, but things liven up around 10:30, the “official” coffee break time.

Art is EVERYWHERE. Here are just a few examples. This sculpture is controversial. It reminds me of trees. What do YOU see?]

Even the tunnels are artistic.

In 1983, while excavating for a house’s foundation, Roman ruins were uncovered. The property’s owner was persuaded to build his house elsewhere, and voila, by 2004, this architecturally intriguing museum was created.  Okay, so in Italy you can visit all kinds of ruins, but in Beja you can walk OVER them, atop a glass floor.  For those whose eyes glaze over at the thought of another museum visit, this is the right place for you. Small, but oh so interesting.

I couldn’t figure out how to photograph the dwelling’s private bath.  Here’s my poor attempt.  Guess you’ll just have to go there.

Although the residents were aware of Pax Julia’s importance to the Romans, (Beja’s name back then), they didn’t know that the area had been inhabited much, much earlier. The museum contains artifacts dating back to 3000 BC. The Nucleo Muselogogico ( The name is almost as big as the museum) is free, as are the blue booties you wear to protect the glass floor.

Close by is the Regional Museum, which was originally a convent for women. Across the street is the theater, formerly the convent for men. The passageway that once ran between the two buildings (no doubt only used by the servants, to carry supplies back and forth), no longer exists.

The Regional Museum is the only one that charges a fee–just two Euros, and it is well worth it. In addition to all of the precious church items,

St John the Baptist

there is also a fine exhibit showing the process for restoring paintings. If seeing how St. Bartholomew was flayed is your thing, then you definitely need to find your way to the paintings room.

If instead, you are a literature buff, you can go upstairs to view the window through which Sr. Mariana gazed longingly, awaiting the return of her knight in shining armor. Yes, the author of the famous “Letters of a Portuguese Nun” lived in this very convent.

I mistakenly thought that being sent off to a convent was not a fate I would have desired. But that was BEFORE our guide pointed out its many advantages: unlike married women, who became their husband’s servants, rich girls got to bring THEIR servants WITH them to the convent. Freed from toil, they were educated, spending their days praying, reading and being waited on. I never thought of it quite like that. An additional bonus? You didn’t die in childbirth. Of course, there was always a chance you could be bricked into a wall, if you made a real good friend across the passageway, who got to know you in the biblical sense.

On the outskirts of town is the fortress (they refer to it as a castle) with the tallest tower on the Iberian peninsula. It has 198 steps and is 40 meters high (or 131 feet, but it is already on a hill, so it feels even higher).

Jeanne, Laurie and Heidi

Can you imagine trying to navigate these steps, wearing your armor while trying to dodge arrows and rocks, or whatever they were using back then?

I’ve been told you can see Spain from the top. But then, they could tell me I could see Russia from there, and I probably would have believed them.

The view from the top. Could that be Spain on the horizon?

The Hotel Bejense is a great choice if you are looking for the 4 C’s: clean, comfortable, cheap. For about $57 a night, you get a small room, with a private bath (complete with hair dryer, and towel warmers), breakfast, great Wi-Fi, a flat screenTV with many English channels, on a pedestrian walkway. Right next door a pastry shop with incredibly delicious offerings. Good thing we walk so much, because we are visiting the pastry shop at least once a day, sometimes more.

Entrance to the Hotel Bejense.

If you want to splurge and spend almost $90 per night, (off season rate ) you can always stay at the nearby Pousada de Sao Francisco, another former convent.

Four of us opted to have lunch there and to conduct our own self guided tour. I know what my sisters are thinking, so I will answer the question. YES, we WERE allowed to wander through the convent.

Speaking of food, you won’t go hungry in Beja. You have LOTS of choices, from the rather expensive (non Global Volunteer lunch at the Pousada) to the incredibly affordable and everything in between. My favorite restaurant is Les Infantes, where we were served fantastic “Tuscan Pasta Salad”. Take my word for it, if you are in Beja, you HAVE to try it.

Les Infantes, early in he evening, before it got busy.

Beja—a small city with a big heart!