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Sunday, 01 November 2020

Iberian Peninsula: Slow-Travel Road Trip in Spain and Portugal

Written by Russ and Emily Firlik
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Our six week Iberian slow-travel road trip took us from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela to Madrid to Seville to the Island of Mallorca, and on to Barcelona. The adventure covered the peninsula from coast to coast, east to west and north to south, and utilized cars, trains, buses and planes. We've been very fortunate in the past to have had many slow-travel road trips in Europe, but this was the largest in terms of area to explore, and the greatest distances to travel. It was a memorable historic and cultural learning experience that we shall always remember.


We arrived in Lisbon after eleven hours of flight time and 18 hours of wait time = 29 hours to paradise. A twenty-minute Uber ride to our small boutique hotel on the impressive Praca do Comercio. No vehicle needed to visit this exciting city with a population of 504,000. Lisbon, in my humble opinion, was a mix of Naples, Rome, Paris, Sevilla, and Havana. Its stunning architecture is Spanish, Moorish, Baroque and Renaissance.


It was our first time in Lisbon. We needed to orient and inform ourselves about the city and its architecture, so for two days we rode the On and Off Bus to discover and explore this beautiful city.


We spent our first day north west of Lisbon’s old town in the Belem district, which is noted for its museums, music, opera, cultural center and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. The UNESCO World Heritage Site – the 16th century Belem Tower was a Spanish Renaissance fortification situated on the Tagus River, and the point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers. We discovered that Lisbon was made up of many neighborhoods, each with its own flavor, culture, traditions and modes of living.


Our next goal was to purchase passes for the tram, Metro, bus and limited rail transport for the subsequent road trip adventures. Off to the nearest lottery shop to purchase a Viva Viagem card, which allowed free transport, (except distant rail) for 24 hours.


We then took the Blue-line Metro to the Museum Gulbenkian, just outside the city center. There were significant art-history exhibits ranging from the Egyptian and Eastern Islamic to European art, sculptures - (Rodin), illuminated manuscripts and works by the Flemish and Dutch masters: Rubens, Bosch, Rembrandt, and Hals. The Renaissance was represented by tapestries from Brussels (Gobelins and Beavers). An impressive collection of 22 Impressionist artists topped off the art-history day. The purpose and value of learning comes from the world around us.


We stopped into the rail station to purchase our train tickets for Porto, our next Portuguese city. However, we tried to purchase rail tickets from Porto to Santiago (Spain), but were told that one can only buy rail tickets for Portugal in Portugal; meaning a change of trains at the border.


The next day was sunny, with temperatures in the high 50’s, as we took the one hour and twenty minute rail ride from Lisbon to the northern slopes and wooded ravines to Sintra. Sintra is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws thousands of visitors all year long. By taking the #743 bus, we climbed to the very top of the mountain where the 10th century Moorish castle and the Palacio da Pena sit on one of the highest peaks of the Sierra Mountains. Marvelous views of the countryside and the wooded ravines.


The next morning we took the fast-train, Portuguese Alfa Pendular, on a three hour plus rail ride to Oporto - Porto and marveled at the brilliant and exhilarating landscapes of vineyards. Porto (pop. 240,000) is Portugal’s second largest city. Porto has many museums, plenty of markets, varied church architecture and some huge cathedrals. Straight-away after checking into our hotel, we immediately purchased tickets for the On and Off Bus. Included in this package was a River Douro cruise. Porto is unique and fortunate – in that most of their medieval streets and many of Romanesque buildings still exist. Oporto was spared the horrible Great Lisbon earthquake in 1775.

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Because we had a second day on our On and Off Bus ticket, the next day we took the castle route which brought us to the ocean and all around the city of Porto. We visited the famous architectural gem, the Sao Bento rail station. In 1887, town officials authorized the construction of a railway line, and placed a rail station on the site of a Benedictine convent. In 1916, this dramatic granite U-shaped building of Beaux Arts vigor opened. The richly colorful vestibule was covered with 20,000 azulejo tiles and murals. The station has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Another focus for discovery was to find the Livraria Lello, one of the ten most interesting and beautiful bookshops in the world. Opened in 1881, the two-story interior has the famous forked staircase, skylights, and painted glass windows along with books and bookshelves. Guide books indicate that this bookshop was frequented by J.K. Rowling when she taught English in Porto, and is reported to be an inspiration for her writing.


When in Porto, you partake in their famous fortified port wine. We had a very informative guided tour of a cave and a lecture on the history of port wine. Finished off the tour and lecture to sample the many different styles of port wines.


The glamour of “la belle époque” is the Majestic Café. This could not have been missed as it’s location was on Santa Catarina Street, within walking distance from National Theatre, São Bento train station, and the City Library. This was the most beautiful coffee house we have ever experienced. The façade was gorgeous, and inside we were overwhelmed with excitement by the Beaux Arts atmosphere. Reminiscent of 1920’s Paris’s sixth Arrondissement, this cafe served both coffee and absinthe and was used as the meeting point of the writers, playwrights, politicians, artists, philosophers and humanist thinkers.

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Friday, off early for our long train ride to Santiago, Spain. We were a bit concerned about how we change trains in Vigo (Portugal), and then catch the train headed to Santiago (Spain). Nonetheless, we were relaxed and enjoying the marvelous countryside, and forgot about the train changes, but fifty minutes into our travels the train stopped. No idea where we were, and only after an hour we knew that we must still be in Portugal? Only one passenger spoke a little English and told us that this occurrence happens frequently. We stood around for over an hour before we were told to hop on a bus that appeared from nowhere. To Where? Another 90 minutes until the bus takes us to another train station. We theorize that the train lines were obstructed somewhere and a diversion the result. Back on another train heading north for another hour and half where we arrive at Vigo. Here we change trains to Santiago de Compostela. We wait another one and half hours before our train arrives for our two-hour ride to Santiago, region of Galicia, Spain. A taxi ride (no Uber) to our first ever stay in a parador was welcomed. Total travel time: ten hours! What is to be learned from this unexpected adventure? Stay calm, and always travel with minimal luggage, have a loving partner, and continue to practice your meditation - It will be helpful.


Once we checked into our Parador of Santiago we immediately took a slow stroll through this magnificent city. The Parador of Santiago is the oldest hotel in all of Europe. We are staying in a hotel that was established 700 years ago. Santiago de Compostela became medieval Christendom’s most important pilgrimage center, along with Jerusalem and Rome. The grand Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is one of the most important religious structures in the whole of Spain, particularly because it marks the end of the 790 kilometers (490 miles) that make up the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Construction of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral began in 1075, on the site of an old church dedicated to Saint Santiago, or St James as he is known in English. So inspiring were the additions over the many years that they yielded various architectural styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical.

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This is rainy March: More rain fails here than in any other region in Spain. However, the northwestern province of Galicia, Santiago might be the most magical city in all of Spain.


Its our final day in Santiago de Compostela and it is still raining today. Nothing to worry about as we head for the modern art gallery, the 11th century church and cloister, and the large open market with a variety of seafood (octopus, scallops, razor crabs, spider crabs, goose barnacles, and fresh lobsters). The Crustacean signature dish in the province of Galicia is “pulpo a galena.” These were tender slices of octopus tentacles sprinkled with olive oil, sea salt and paprika. Along with fresh baked bread and local beer, we enjoyed a marvelous lunch as an award to slow travelers and their journey.

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Interestingly, the exhibit in the modern art museum featured an artist from Connecticut.  The 11th century church- cum - cloister was of Romanesque style. This was definitely a working church, but nobody was in it this morning. An observation: There was little pomp about Easter here. The shops were not overly celebrating or representing Holy Week. I supposed that the folks celebrate in one of the 50 or so churches dotted around the small area.


Today we picked up our vehicle and drove four hours to our next stop in Leon, a city known for its architecture, history and museums. Our GPS and Google maps guided us to our hotel, which was located in a medieval square, and was part of a museum and cloister of the old church. Our very small room was a vast difference (as expected) from the one at the parador, but with free breakfast, Wifi (in the lobby) and parking, we were extremely pleased.

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Leon has a compact Old Town, hosts a major university, and enjoys a small town atmosphere. While we were in Leon we focused on the two important medieval sights within these many medieval European buildings and art styles: (1). Romanesque - the Basilica of San Isidoro Monastery, which is where our small hotel is located, and; (2). Gothic - Leon Cathedral with the best stained glass (painted glass) outside France, and the treasure in the museum of the 10th century Mozarabic Bible.

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Doing some research before our visit to the Romanesque church, we knew that the Basilica of San Isidoro was dedicated in 1149, and San Isidoro stands on the site of a Roman temple. The first Christian structure on this site was a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and rebuilt in stone in the Romanesque style in the 12th century. Further on, the Leon Cathedral, is a French-style Gothic cathedral built in the 13th century over the ruins of ancient Roman baths. Probably the finest Gothic building in Spain, it was closely modeled on Reims Cathedral and St-Denis Basilica. The highlight, and sunshine, our good fortune, were the 125 medieval stained glass windows illuminating a harmonious, French Gothic interior.

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Accordingly, Leonese customs include the Semana Santa, which features numerous processions through the center of the city. We had a wonderful view along a side street filled with exuberant “holiday makers.” We found out today that associated with “holy week” is the procession called “The Burial of Generin.” Generin was an alcoholic beggar who was hit and killed by the first garbage truck in the city of Leon in the year 1929. This is a celebration of alcohol, and the main purpose of the people who attend it is getting drunk in honor of the alcoholic beggar. This is why the west end of the old city is called “the wet side.” We are noting that art and architecture are intertwined inexplicably; I think we might be comprehending the connections?


Up and out early for our three and half hour drive to Santillana del Mar in north coastal Spain. Santillana del Mar (Cantabria region of Spain), is undoubtedly one of the best preserved, most picturesque medieval towns in northern Spain. It is one of the villages featured in the new "The Most Beautiful Villages in Spain" volume of that series.


The first day of April. Lucky for us we have brilliant sunshine, cloudless skies, and we are off to explore the wonders of this paradise in Spain. We learned what makes this village so special was it has had building and zoning restrictions to keep it exactly like it was in 1575. Only residence or hotel guests can drive in the village. It is proudly a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The little nooks, cobblestone streets, Gothic houses built in the 15th-17th centuries and artisan shops make this a very special village indeed. With its vibrant and caramel colored architecture, colorful flowers and black wrought iron balconies, you might imagine it as a Van Gogh painting. Accordingly, Paul Sartre called it “the prettiest village in all of Spain.”

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The next day we drove 18 kilometers through the varied rolling hills, dotted with medieval villages to the town of Comillas. It is important for its Art Nouveau buildings, and the brilliant El Capricho by Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi. There is a golden beach, tiny fishing port, cobbled old center and mountain tops crowning the original buildings. You notice the solid sandstone buildings with wooden balconies, similar to Santillana del Mar. The town is another medieval center that has been maintained perfectly.


Another gorgeous sunny, but chilly day in Santillana. We saved today for a full day visit to the Altamira Museum, which has the replicas of the rock paintings in the Altamira Caves. The caves are closed for preservation. Seventeen decorated caves of the Paleolithic age were inscribed in the Altamira Cave. The property represents the impressive Paleolithic cave art that developed across Europe from 35,000 to 11,000 BC. Because of their deep galleries, isolated from external climatic influences, these caves are particularly well preserved. The caves are masterpieces of creative genius and are humanity's earliest accomplished art. They are also an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition and outstanding illustrations of a significant stage in human history. Now we have seen the location of the “Cradle of Humankind,” in South Africa and the rock paintings of the Paleolithic era.


Thirty minute drive along the coast and we arrive at Suances, which is a small, beautiful town with a lively market. The natural harbor and beaches are backed by cliffs which is why its so popular with tourists. A bit tired, we only came for a delightful lunch. We decided on the Restaurant Bonito Verde near the coast, a family owned restaurant with great service and fresh grilled seafood. We had a large mixed salad with anchovies, house-warmed baked bread, and a glass of the local red wine. We shared the lunch as there was so much food. It was not very expensive and stupendously delicious. A leisurely drive along the coast took us back to Santillana after a very full day of sightseeing and anthropological exploration.


We left early the next morning for a drive to Bilbao (pop.350,000). Our 2.5 hours drive was not a pleasurable one, but we managed to find the Hotel Silken-Gran-Domine. We immediately dropped our luggage off at the hotel and crossed the street where the Guggenheim Museum awaited us. Em was so excited! Photos, and more photos from every angle. The building speaks volumes of the mastery of modern architecture (Frank Gehry, architect). We spent many hours outside and inside the museum as we wanted to see the building at different times of the day.

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The emerging museum collections change periodically, however, the permanent exhibition of Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time,” demanded the physical space for the nature of his eight sculptures, weathering steel and huge dimensions.

The three current exhibits were amazing in variation of themes:


1. Art in War, France 1938-1947 - from Picasso to Dubuffet, where art is created in defiance of the political atmosphere in France around WWII. Picasso’s work was moving as he was confined in his tiny studio in Paris during the occupation;


2. Inhabited Architecture: Reflecting on the occupation of space on human habitation;


3. Various selections from the two other Guggenheim Museums: Pop-Art, representing Jean- Michel Basquiat, Rauschenberg, Warhol and our favorite, Cy Twombly - USA and Rome; The Fine Arts Museum - The collection was in chronological order beginning with the 12th century to 21st century. The Basque artists dominated the museum’s collection. Outstanding examples of ancient, modern and contemporary paintings from the Spanish artists. Well known artists included: El Greco, Gentileschi, Ribera, Zurbaran, Murillo, Rebera and Mary Cassett, our American contribution.



The city of Balboa is beautiful! The Gehry Museum has revitalized the city. The city has parks, playgrounds and is very quiet. Bilbao is the heart of the metropolis where more than 1 million people live. The great architectural and infrastructure projects have been the driving force of the urban and economic regeneration of the city, including Norman Foster’s Underground system.


We wished that we had more than four days here, but we were off early the next day to drop off the vehicle at the airport and fly to Sevilla (pop. 703,300). As luck was with us, our flight was on-time. Fortunately, our hotel was located in the Santa Cruz neighborhood, near the old Jewish Quarter, the Cathedral and the Alcazar.


We explored the neighborhood, the Alcazar (a 10th century Moorish Castle) and saved the Cathedral and the Belle Arts Museum until another day. Also called al-Qasr al-Muriq, the Alcazar royal palace is a premier example of Mudejar architecture style – displaying ornamentation used in the Christian kingdoms from the 13th -15th centuries in the Iberian Peninsula. Incidentally, the Moorish palace complex was used for several episodes of Game of Thrones. Also, part of Star Wars (episode two) was filmed at the Plaza de Espana.

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The Seville Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built over the great 12th-century Almohad mosque, to demonstrate the city’s power and wealth. The construction lasted over 100 years. After its completion the cathedral was bigger than Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. What was overwhelmingly beautiful, when approaching the cathedral from any direction, was its height and width; the third largest church in the world.


Slow traveling is a wonderful excuse to take unplanned diversions whenever we wish. For example:


1. We explored the university - a grand series of buildings, including the old Royal Tobacco Factory. This in now part of the university buildings. The Royal Tobacco Factory was the setting for Bizet’s, “Carmen.” As Carmen was the cigar maker and her relationship was with the security guard. After a long walk to the Plaza Espana we stopped to admire this complex;


2. The Plaza Espana was a principal building built on the Maria Luisa Park for the 1929 Expo. The complex is a huge half-circle with buildings continually running around the edge accessible over a moat by numerous beautiful bridges. In the center was a large fountain. The walls of the Plaza had many tiled alcoves, each representing a different province of Spain; today the Plaza de España mainly consists of Government buildings. Another diversion, full of surprises for loving memories.

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We only had four days in Seville – again, we should have scheduled more!


We left Seville to pick up the car at the rail station, headed south with a leisurely 3 hour drive through the countryside to Granada (pop. 240,000). The mountains of the Sierra Nevada were covered with winter snow, the green fields soon to be harvested before the burning summer sun turned them to a burnt orange. This drive took us through the heart of Andalucia: the legendary brandy adverts - the Osborne Bull (Toro de Osborne) in black silhouette of the bull standing on the hilltops; fields of glossy black bulls; troops of horses; the glittering silver leafed olive trees; the pueblos blancos - whitewashed exteriors, in the traditional Hispano-Moorish architectural styling. This had to be one of the most inspiring sights of the entire road trip.


Granada is located at the foot of the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains and the city is surrounded by them. The River Darro flows through the old town. Granada was under Islamic rule for over 700 years. The Alhambra (Red Castle in Arabic) took the entire day, and for very good reason. The Alhambra is the only monument of its kind anywhere and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace was called red castle because of its mostly red (from tapia earth) walls. The marvelous Islamic architecture, along with the Renaissance - 16th century- Christian buildings and elegant gardens are an inspiration for many stories and songs. As part of our research we read Washington Irving's “Tales of the Alhambra,” a collection of essays, sketches and stories. There are intriguing descriptions, myth and narrations of real historical events - A fascinating read before a visit to the actual Alhambra.

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We were learning much about our own travel capacities, nuances of European driving habits, proper “behavior” and cultural awareness as a foreigner, preferences of modes of travel and types of accommodations that met our comfort and budget.

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Next we drove north 150 kms to the brilliant white hill of Jaen (pop. 117,000), which is on the way to Cordoba. Jaen is famous for its olive oil production, beautiful Renaissance style Catedral de Jaen, the 13th century Saint Catherine’s Castle, the Arab Baths, and the University of Jaen. An absolutely must slow-travel stop. We also enjoyed the best croissants we ever tasted, including in Paris.


In Cordoba (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) time warps, as it often does! The home of another of Europe’s best Islamic site's – Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral, dating back to 780AD. We crossed over the 1st century Roman bridge, leading to the Great Mosque of Cordoba. We then ventured onto the Roman Cordoba Route and found the Seneca statue, and became Stoics once again. After a 15 minute stroll down Calle San Fernando we entered the Jewish Quarter. We kept wandering and lingering along the narrow lanes of the Jewish Quarter until we found the expertly restored Synagogue (1315), which had been converted to a church in the 1500's.

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We signed up for the guided Jewish Quarter walking tour, which was very informative and inspiring. Here are a few of the memorable characteristics of this quarter:


(1) Narrow streets as the people had to make the most of the limited space;

(2) Thick, whitewashed walls for natural air-conditioning and with a chalk ingredient to deter bugs;

(3) Colorful red, yellow and blue doors;

(4) Iron grilles, artistically crafted and practical;

(5) River-stone cobbles, inexpensive and local that allowed drainage;

(6) Pretty patios, flowerpots and flowers in the courtyards;

(7) People actually live here - No tacky shops;


On to Cordoba’s Cathedral: or the 784 AD Mosque; or the 1st-century AD -Roman pagan building; or the Lady of the Assumption Church - 1236; or the Mezquita - They are all one and the same. This incredible edifice includes many periods of architectural styles and religious adornments. Beginning with the Romans, the building has over 2000 years of history within. The Mosque was converted into the Christian church. Instead of destroying the mosque, the Christians elected to modify it. There is no doubt, however, that this is a Christian “working” church today.


We really favored Cordoba over Granada as the city is smaller and less touristy than its neighbors Granada and Seville.


The next day we dropped off the Opel at the Cordoba bus station, and simply walked across the street to the rail station to await our train to Madrid. We phoned our Madrid apartment owner and he assured us that he would be waiting at the apartment when we arrived. We taxied to the tiny apartment and were happily greeted by Raul, and he provided a brief orientation. The apartment was minimal, relatively clean, with no internet inside (though it could be accessed in the hallway). The best feature of the apartment is that it was smack in the historical center of Madrid. We purchased tickets for the two day On and Off Bus. We wound up riding both the Green and Blue routes around this elegant city with a population of 6.6 million. The unique and extravagant Spanish architecture of Madrid influenced Renaissance 15th century architecture.


The Prado Museum was free every evening from 6:00- 8:00, so we took our two hours admiring an enormous collection of devotional art from the world’s masters: Fra Angelico to Raphael Sanzio to El Grego to Francisco de Goya. An unbelievable collection.

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The next day we spent our entire morning and early afternoon in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. The museum has predominantly European art and is a worthy member of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of art. In addition to their permanent collection of painters, which included: 17th century Italian-Dutch paintings - Post Impressionists - Abstract - Modern – Surrealists - Futurists. Their current exhibition: “Impressionism and Open-Air Painting,” was a worldwide collection of 19th century European painters (Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian and Spanish).


We then enjoyed the treasures of the smallish sized Plaza Mayor, the famous and beautiful square lined with 18th century architecture. It was rebuilt in the 1790’s to include the grand arcaded buildings that surround the cobblestoned square. The buildings have the same structural elements, including 237 window balconies, and a total of 10 access points, but only nine gates to enter the square. What one finds in the Plaza Mayor are great restaurants and cafes, tapa bars, the important Tourist Office, and many street performers and musicians.

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We completed a very long day with a visit to the Centro De Arte Reina Sofia Museum, noted for Picasso’s famous painting called “Guernica.” Picasso was so distraught by the murderous army fighting against the resistance during the Spanish Civil War, that he painted for 37 straight days and nights the massacre that happened in the small town of Guernica in 1936. The painting was at the MET in NY for forty years until 1988 when it was returned to the Sofia Museum in Madrid. That was enough for one terrific day in Madrid.


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Next we departed by bus from the Plaza Espana to Avila and Segovia- two extremely interesting Roman historical sights. Avila has a wall built around 1100 on ancient monuments - the best fortified wall is the oldest, most complete and best preserved in Europe. Avila was the battlefront between the Muslims and Christians for more than 300 years! Avila has not changed since Medieval times: fine Romanesque churches, monasteries, and great views of the mountains. A must stop. Another hour away was Segovia. What a beautiful city – a former Roman military base though it badly needed water. So Emperor Trajan’s engineers built a nine-mile aqueduct to channel water to the city. The 2,000 year old engineering feat has 118 arches and is 100 ft high. The grand cathedral, built in Renaissance times (16th C) but added to with the Spanish style called Flamboyant which was new to me. The historic castle, or Alcazar was built on a Roman fortress in the 1st-C. The 12th century frescoes are simply fascinating. The intriguing and elegant weaving of tapestries (1500’s) were masterpieces of fine art.

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We spent the next day at an oasis in the middle of the city, the Parque del Retiro. With fountains, statues, rose gardens and the large lake for canoe rides. This was a perfect time to rejuvenate, and an organic breath of fresh air in the rather polluted and crowded city.


Our last day included a 40 minute train ride to the medieval town of Toledo, which sits atop a circular hill. A bit of a confusing medieval street plan, but was small enough to walk the entire town of 10,000 residents. Tourism is the major economic mainstay for the town. There was a castle, now a parador, the Alcazar, many churches and 2,500 years of tangled history-Roman, Jewish, Visigothic, Moorish and Christian heritages make it one of Europe’s artistic highlights. Toledo echoes El Greco, the famous Spanish painter. Our quest to visit Toledo was to visit several museums: Santa Cruz Museum housing 15 paintings by El Greco, the Museo Victorio Macho with an expansive river-gorge view, the El Greco Museum, the Sephardic Museum of Sinagoga del Transito, which highlighted its Jewish past, and the Sinagogo de Santa Maria la Blance, harmoniously combining Toledo’s three religious architectural influences.

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Flying to Palma de Mallorca to spend a few days exploring the sights and neighboring villages and towns was next. Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic Islands. Annually, over 10 million visitors search for sand, sea and sun. For us, there is more to discover in Mallorca. Palma de Mallorca is the island’s only true city. Its old quarter was a blend of tree-lined boulevards and cobbled lanes. Gothic churches and Baroque palaces, with private flowered patios and courtyards; quite a super holiday destination.


Our hotel was a bit isolated, less expensive than a city location, and we were on a rather strict budget. For exploration, we rented a car to visit a couple of Mediterranean coastal towns, specifically, Valldemossa, Dela and Soller. All are situated in the northwestern part of the island. Our reflections about these interesting coastal towns:


1. Valldemossa was a small village that resembles a Cotswold English village: honey stone, small craft shops and cafes. The town is also noted for two famous 19th century people: George Sand and Fred Chopin - It was in Valldemossa that the two resided for years and it was here that George Sand wrote her book, “Winter in Mallorca;”

2. The second town nearest the coast was Dela. This town was the home of English poet, Robert Graves. An absolutely pristine village near the coast with spectacular views;

3. The last town, edged within the mountains along the Mediterranean Sea was Soller. An absolutely touristy village with a 13th century church and building facade by one of Gaudi’s students. The port of Soller was touristy, but beautiful.


On our last day in Mallorca we explored the fabulous city of Palma Mallorca. A few highlights of our exploration included:

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1. The Gothic Cathedral La Seu (14th century): An imposing golden sandstone structure perched above the Parc de la Mar with interior elements by A. Gaudi;

2. Es Baluard - Museu d’Art Modern: A Renaissance era building with 700 works of contemporary art by many 19-20th century greats; 3. Palau de L'Almudaina - Originally an Islamic fort - Alcazar- it was converted into a thick stone walled residence for the Mallorcan monarchs at the end of the 13th century. The upstairs apartments are adorned with 15th century Flemish tapestries and period furniture. A refreshing and inspiring art history experience in Mallorca city.


After a 50 minute flight from Palma Airport to El Prat Airport, Barcelona, who greets us upon arrival? A large mosaic of Miro, and the city’s bank, la Caixa, with the star created by Miro. Another 30 minute taxi ride brought us to our Hotel located on La Ramblas. What do slow travelers do when they first arrive in Gaudi’s city? We explored one of the buildings designed by him, Casa Batllo. The next day, our de rigueur, On and Off Bus, to explore this fascinating city of 1.6 million people. As expected in mid-April the city was full of tourists. We made stops to satisfy our interests:

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(1). Parque Guell - A UNESCO World Heritage Site. A public park with gardens and architectural features. The park is certainly a reflection of Gaudi’s artistic genius. It is imaginative, with mythological elements from the Temple of Apollo of Delphi, and various symbols and designs ranging from religious to Freemasonry, all were an inspiration to Gaudi;


(2). The Miro Museum, Gothic Quarter. A place to experience the art of Joan Miro and other twenty-first century artists. This museum was created by Miro from his own collection. The design of the museum blends Miro’s artistic vision with the outside environment, with terraces overlooking the city below;


(3). Museum Picasso - A very special architectural structural. It occupies five palaces dating from the 13th - 14th centuries. This period of architecture follows the Gothic Catalan style. The museum was very busy, but with over 4,000 works of art, there was plenty of time and space to wander, wish, and wonder how Picasso’s mind operated to produce such varied works;


(4.) The UNESCO World Heritage Site - the Basilica del la Sagrada Familia, commenced building in 1882, and is still unfinished. We were all absolutely flabbergasted when we walked all around this structure. Gaudi’s gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms were accurately reflected by art critic Rainer Zerbst as “it is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art.”


The remaining few days we had left in Barcelona were spent one day wandering away from the busy Gothic Quarter to a completely different and interesting residential ethnic neighborhood; plenty of cafes for people watching. That’s the marvel of slow-traveling – time to explore, observe, and appreciate how fortunate we are to be able to not have a timetable or fixed schedule. In the afternoon, we visited the European Museum of Sculpture, which was a small but enjoyable museum.


Emily had just read the "Shadow of the Wind," and said, “We must visit The Four Cats.” The Four Cats, Quarto Gats in Catalan, was a famous piece of Barcelona's folklore. Operating as a cafe, cabaret and all-around artistic space between 1897 and 1903, Els Quatre Gats was a center of Modernista thought and hosted Pablo Picasso's first art exhibition. Pablo, and many writers, painters and sculpters spent many evenings in this lively cabaret setting. The Four Cats since has established itself as something of a tourist destination and certainly its vibrant decor and ambiance made the restaurant a deserving point of pilgrimage for us. We did not partake in the Catalan and Mediterranean cuisine, but the coffee was one of the best in the city.

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Another unplanned discovery was to find the Bubo Bar, and their award winning chef, Charles Mample. His establishment was a two - in - one jewel, i.e., a haute chocolatier and a new-wave tapa bar. We sampled both savory and sweet tapas and the incredible tartaleta de xocolata. Exquisite in every flavor!


Our last day in Barcelona was devoted to the Museum of Contemporary Arts, as this building was designed by Richard Meier. The surprise was seeing this large stark-white building amongst the 400 year old residential buildings . Meier simply took a square in the middle of a residential block and designed the building to “fit” within the footprint. Brilliant!


We finished off our Barcelona visit with a return visit to the Picasso Museum. Picasso maintained ties with Barcelona since his youth. The museum was made up of five prior palaces that were annexed to accommodate 4,251 works. Most works were from his teenage years to age 30. Another great opportunity to learn another art history lesson.




After a slow-travel road trip of six weeks in the Iberian Peninsula we were very satisfied that we succeeded in all that we wanted to do and experience, enjoyed our discoveries and learned as much as possible along the way.


From Portugal to Spain to the island of Mallorca, we had our surprises, but never any disappointments during this journey where we visited 24 towns, cities and villages; A lasting travel experience that we shall always remember.


Upon reflection, we'd observed, felt, smelt, listened and tasted much more of the Portuguese and Spanish culture, history and cuisine than we could have imagined.


Em deserves all the credit for this inspiring, insightful and successful slow travel experience. Her planned itinerary, selections for accommodations (location and budget point), good humor, excellent navigation skills, keen intuitive capacities, and patience with me, made for a lovable and adorable traveling mate. Thank you, Em.



©Russ and Emily Firlik

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 November 2020