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.

Catania, Taormina, Mt Etna–Oh My!

Okay, be honest.  Before the G7 meeting, had you ever heard of Taormina?  If I had, it didn’t register, until we booked this trip.

But before heading to Taormina, we still had lots to see and do in Catania.  I’ll tell ya, I was totally unprepared for how much I enjoyed Catania.  What a pleasant surprise.  It was easy to get around, with lots to see, and of course,  with an abundance of great restaurants.

The city was conquered by the Romans in 263 BC, and as with other areas in their empire, the Romans left their mark, which the city has wisely preserved.


I love the way the old and modern structures coexist.  This amphitheater lies beneath the modern city

Yes,  Catania has the requisite number of churches, fountains and statues.  It also has lots of interesting streets,  like this one.  It isn’t immediately apparent, but as you climb all those stairs,   P1010550

you are rewarded with views like this.    P1180568

As one would expect of a city smack dab on the ocean, Catania’s fish market was HUGE, as were its products.  Check out that swordfish.  P1010572

Coming from coastal Massachusetts, however, this girl wasn’t all that impressed.

I DID get excited about the market’s fruit, though, especially those cherries.  I don’t know who was more excited about my purchase–him or me?  To show his appreciation,  he gave me a slice of the most delicious cantaloupe I’ve ever tasted.   Fresh, delicious fruit… aah, that’s what I call quality of life!P1180580

But I didn’t fill up on cherries.  Good thing because we had yet another incredible lunch at a little outdoor cafe off of the main square, across from the cathedral.  You’d think by now I would remember to write the cafe’s name down or take a picture of the menu, but I did neither.  Sorry, future visitors to Catania.  I believe it was on the corner, facing the elephant’s behind, where the tan umbrellas are.


On to Taormina, where security was tight.  Good thing our group was in great shape, because we had to walk quite a distance.  Bus access into the town and to the amphitheater was limited, even though the leaders would not be arriving for another week.


Notice the two different uniforms of the military/security people in this photo.  I think every country must have sent their own people.  There were LOTS more milling about!

The amphitheater was the perfect spot for a group photo.  And what a group we were! All seasoned travelers, everyone was considerate, friendly and easy to be with.  Of course I had my favorites (and they know who they are), but I would be thrilled to see any of them on a future trip.


Great traveling companions!  Back row: Tom, Maxine, Jane, Sharon, Ann,  Carol. (Ann should have been in the front!)  Middle row: Sue, Sue, Lavonne, Al, Joel and Henry  Front row: Mike, me, Daniel (way in front), Shirley and Owen.

The Greek Amphitheater is still used for outdoor concerts, but those white plastic chairs are not normally in place.  People usually sit on the stone steps, bleachers or the grassy sections.  The plastic seats were set up for the following week’s G-7 conference.


The view from the site is unforgettable.  See that cloud of smoke in the distance?  That’s Mount Etna.


And that’s where we were headed on our last day in Catania.  But first, one last shot of Taormina.  Yes, the streets in the city are a bit steep, but none of our group needed a golf cart to get around.  (I’m just sayin’…)


Okay, so I’ll admit it.  I was absolutely thrilled to be able to hike on an active volcano.  Of course, this being OAT, we were accompanied by Marco, our expert local guide who made sure we were safe at all times.  Marco came equipped wth visual aids, walking sticks and hard hats!P1010643

We learned our group was unique, in that EVERYONE made the hike and descended into the lava tubes.  Apparently this was a first for Marco.  He said on all his other tours a couple of people waited at the base and didn’t take part in all the activities.  Yay us!


Here’s one of our guide, Daniel’s, photos.  As you can see from our clothing (and my hat) It was cold and windy on the volcano.  I was glad I’d packed my fleece!




That’s not OUR group in the distance.  I wasn’t that brave (foolhardy) to stay behind to get that shot!  In fact, WE were up higher than they, as you can see from the angle of my shot.

So why did we need hard hats?  Well, when you climbed down into a lava tube, it’s a good idea to protect your head and turn your head lamp on.


Yet another one of Daniel’s photos–the group inside the lava tube.

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If you think this blog post was a whirlwind, you’d be right. And that’s how it felt to be on the trip.  A very nice, interesting, FUN whirlwind.  We definitely got a lot for our money!

We said good-bye to our new friends at that night’s farewell dinner.


Once again, thank you Daniel!


Most were headed home, but very early the following morning (5 AM),  Mike, Owen, Shirley and I started our Malta adventure, which I’ll be posting about next.

Eureka, We Found Syracusa!

For the last three days of our OAT tour, we were based in Catania.  Enroute, we stopped in Syracusa, the birthplace of Archimedes.  Remember him?  He’s the guy in the bathtub, who shouted “eureka” when he discovered something of great importance?  I don’t remember what he discovered, but I sure did like his word choice.


If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering why he’s holding a mirror, instead of sitting in a bathtub, like a Cialis commercial.  Well, there are a couple of stories:  The original legend was that Archimedes developed a parabolic mirror that captured the sun’s rays and then directed them toward the invaders’ wooden ships, setting  them ablaze.  Valeria, our local guide, said it was more likely that the mirror was indeed used to capture the sun’s rays, but was probably more effective temporarily blinding the enemy.  You are free to pick whichever version you prefer.   Archimedes also invented a crane with a metal hook that could pull a ship out of the water, known as “Archimedes Claw”.   Now THAT would have made one hell of a statue!

We didn’t spend much time in Syracuse, instead moving to the fortress island of Ortigia, another lovely Sicilian town just packed with Greek and Roman ruins, Medieval Norman structures, and Baroque buildings, plus great restaurants and lovely boutiques.  We weren’t there long enough!


Typical street in Ortigia.  Lots of pedestrian only walkways.

We made a stop by the Fountain of Arethusa.  You’ve all seen fountains before, so I decided to share a photo of this plaque instead.  Don’t you just love it when there is an English translation?  I hope it comes through large enough for you to read it!

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Arethusa was one “wiry” nymph who didn’t rejoice in the “gifts of her body”.  What a great translation!

After lunch we took a boat ride around Ortigia Bay.  (This photo is courtesy of sweet Daniel, our guide, who shared the photos he’d been taking of us during the entire trip.)See that bridge?  Wonder how we were able to fit under it?  P1180508

Don’t worry.  I’m going to show you…


Our captain instructed us all to scrunch down, then the awning was lowered.  Okay, so it isn’t the best photo I’ve ever taken, but I’ll bet got the idea!

Something else to wonder.  How do people on boats get take-out delivered?  Wonder no more, because once again, I’m going to show you.


Yes indeed.  That IS a pizza being lowered.

Our day wasn’t over.  We had one more stop before we checked into the hotel.  The World War II Museum commemorated the allies landing in Sicily.   My favorite part of the museum was entering the replica of a Sicilian town, hearing the air raid sirens go off, piling in to the bomb shelter (which shook as the “bombs” went off) then exiting to see the devastation that took place.

There was lots more to see, but I decided to share this poster with the folks back home.



Lucky Luciano was sprung from a US prison so that he could communicate with his Sicilian Cosa Nostra connections to ensure that the US knew exactly where to land.   As you can imagine, this was somewhat controversial, especially because some claim the US support of the Cosa Nostra leaders only strengthened their hold on the region after the war ended.

After settling in to the Katane Palace Hotel, Daniel took us for a quick tour, pointing out Catania’s version of “Restaurant Row”, where we had a wonderful dinner.

The perfect ending to a fantastic first day in Catania.