A friend and I went on an 18 day whirlwind land tour on the Ibeaian Peninsula. We flew into Lisbon, then to Porto, drove to Lisbon, Óbidos, Evora, Seville, Granada, high speed train to Madrid, then Barcelona, our final stop was the Basque Country. It was a whirlwind trip but really gave us a taste of what the region is all about. I’m glad we got to see so much of the Peninsula, if we’d only gone to one area we would not have seen what the countries were really like.
I realized right away I didn’t remember or know much about the history other than Ferdinand and Isabella financed Christopher Columbus’ exploration.
I noticed a lot of passports from Brazil in the airport. Because Brazil was a colony of Portugal there are still a lot of connections between the two countries.I had a lot of time to notice this too! Lisbon airport was packed, the good news was pretty much everyone was wearing masks, the bad news was we stood in lines for several hours for passport check, causing us to miss our next flight, and then stood in line several more times before we got it sorted out. A friend who just returned from Ireland said she stood in various lines 4 hours as well.
We ended up spending the night in Lisbon (good news was there was room at the Inn right next door to the airport), and caught the early flight the next day. We made it just in time to catch the bus to start touring Porto.
We started our tour of Porto at the Stock Exchange Palace. It was a beautiful building.
Porto lies along the Douro river. Home to Port wine, street art, and “francesinhas”, Porto is one of the world’s top 100 cities with the most international visitors.
Next we visited the train station which was full of beautiful tiles. There is more than one station in Porto, this one is Sao Bento. It’s in the middle of the downtown and was built on the site of a Benedictine Convent. It opened in 1916 and is covered with over 20,000 hand painted blue and white tiles depicting historical events in Portugal.
The Igreja do Carmo was built between 1756 and 1768 and the blue and white tiles were added in 1912. There is another church in the city we didn’t get to see whose facade is covered in blue and white tiles on all sides.
We walked a bit through the old part of the city, then had a great lunch across the river in Gaia where port wine is matured in centuries-old cellars.
A short ride on the Douro River was followed by a visit to Ferreira Winery where we sampled three kinds of Port. I’ve never been much of a Port fan but have to say it was pretty good.
This winery was founded in the mid 18th century, and grew and to become one of the most prestigious wineries in Portugal, its owner, Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, became the richest woman in Portugal. Her vineyards stretched all the way to the Spanish border.
From Porto we headed down to Lisbon.
On the way we saw these large tile installations at a truck stop. They were about 10 feet tall.
The fields were like patchwork quilts/
Lisbon is a beautiful city with new things to learn about, Fado being one. It’s a type of music that started in the 1820s. It’s a form of song with sad lyrics often about the sea or life of the poor, usually melancholy. Typically with a singer and two guitars.
Our hotel was on a beautiful street called Avenida da Liberdade which was a boulevard lined with trees and lots of monuments and sculpture. Much of the city was built over rubble left by the earthquake that struck on the morning of November 1, 1755. It is said to have lasted about six minutes, causing fissures 16 ft wide in the city center. About 40 minutes later a tsunami swept over the harbor and downtown area. Candles that were lit for All Saints Day were knocked over and started fires all over the city. the earthquake was felt throughout Europe and up to 30,000 people died because of it.
This elevator in Downtown Lisbon Santa Justa Elevator, is the fastest way to get from the Baixa neighborhood to the Bairro Alto district. The city center is flat and not too many blocks wide then the city goes straight up.
We were lucky to be there when the jacaranda trees were in bloom.
Many cities we visited told stories about that earthquake.
On the left – The Belém Tower was built for the defense of the port and to be an entrance door for Lisbon. It was built in 1515.
On the right – Padrão dos Descobrimentos is a monument along the river where ships departed to explore and trade with India and the Orient, the monument celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery (or “Age of Exploration”) during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Across the river is the Cristo Rei Lisbon – a gigantic statue of Jesus – it stands south of the Lisbon city center across the Tagus River on a hill in Almada. It was built in the 1950s.
The Águas Livres Aqueduct was built in the 1700s and remarkably survived the earthquake that devastated the city.
In Lisbon there are the calceteiros, here is an article that talks about these sidewalks and the people that make and maintain them. This walk extended from our hotel all the way to the city center and it was lined with monuments, sculpture and interesting kiosks.
I’ve taken photos of stone mosaics in the US whenever I have seen them but I was thrilled to see that many cities were covered with them. Here are some of the patterns I saw.
In most of Portugal and Spain you have Tapas, in the Basque Country you have pintxos. Everyone knows what Tapas means, food to share. Well pintxos are single servings generally with a toothpick stuck into it. In some places you go in and eat and when you are done they count the number of toothpicks and the color to know what to charge you. And of course the pastries were out of this world. My favorite were the custard tarts. We first ate those in Lisbon. It turns out we ate them from the most famous company that makes them. They started in 1837 making the original Pastéis de Belém, following an ancient recipe from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
We ate some really good food and could have done even better if we knew more Spanish. Pointing only goes so far.
A delicacy you see all over is Jamón, or in English – ham. Legs hanging everywhere and they slice very thin pieces off to eat.
The most interesting thing about the Spanish jamón is the fact that it is cut fresh moments before you eat it. The hind leg is placed in a holding device called jamonera, and is sliced very thin.
On the way to Obidos we passed some old windmills that stood next to modern ones that line the ridge of the hills. I couldn’t get enough of the patchwork landscape.
Obidos was inhabited by the Lusitanians (Celts) until the Romans arrived.
The Visigoths (early Germanic people) took over after the Romans but it was when the Muslims came, in the 8th Century, that the outpost was turned into a city. and they built a wall and Castle.
History of what is now Spain goes back to 1.2 million years BC, modern history from about 900 BC. Romans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, etc each had their turn controlling the Peninsula and each left their mark. What shaped Spains recent history was the take over by the Moors in 711 AD. During their time Christians, Muslims, and Jews, lived in harmony. Eventually, the Christian kingdoms in the north began a long fight to win Spain back from the Moors.
This period, from 718 to 1491, is known as the Reconquest. The two most powerful kingdoms in northern Spain were Castile and Aragon. When Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon married in 1469, they united their forces. Isabella and Ferdinand finally drove the Moors out of Spain when they captured the kingdom of Granada, the Moors´ last stronghold, in 1492. They forced everyone to be Catholic or leave. And in 1492, as we all know, Queen Isabella paid Christopher Columbus to find a new trade route to India but instead he discovered America.
In the 20th century Franco took power. He was a dictator who ruled with an iron fist from 1939 to 1975. After his death Spain became a democracy. Our guide said some good did come from his rule, good education and free healthcare for all.
Next up … Evora.
The most unusual thing we probably saw on our trip was the Chapel of Bones at Igreja do Sao Francisco in Evora. It gets its name because the interior walls are covered and decorated with human skulls and bones. It was creepy but very interesting. The chapel was built in the 17th century on the initiative of three Franciscan friars. Their goal: to convey the message of temporariness and fragility of human life.
In addition to the Chapel of Bones Evora has the Templo de Diana (Roman Temple), only a few blocks from the town centre. What makes the site so impressive is that about half of the main columns are still standing. Another attraction in the city are remains of Roman Baths which were only discovered recently, but they are not open for tours. They were discovered under the City Hall.
We were really wowed by the city of Seville. On 9 May 1929 the Ibero-American Exposition was opened in Seville. A huge multi-national event, aimed at improving the relationship between Spain, Latin America, Portugal, Brazil and the USA. The Plaza de Espana with its huge building is the main attraction left in a beautiful park. Other buildings built for the exposition still survive and are used for various organizations.
Of course every European city has a Cathedral or a Basilica.
The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Sea was spectacular, (like they all are) but what made this one really special for me was the tomb of Christopher Columbus.
His tomb is held aloft by four figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain during Columbus’ life, Castille, Aragon, Navara, and Leon.
The tomb was one of the last additions to the cathedral, installed in 1899. It was designed by the sculptor Arturo Melida, and was originally installed in Havana before being moved to Seville after Spain lost control of Cuba.
This Metropol Parasol mushrooms of Seville is a monument that is located in the plaza de la Encarnación. It is made of concrete and wood in the form of a pergola. It was built in an unused lot and is the largest wooden structure in the world. There are various viewing points and it is used for public affairs. We loved roaming the streets of old Seville and had one of our best meals of the trip just outside the Cathedral.
Southern Portugal is covered with cork trees – did you know that they can strip cork off a tree only every nine years? Learn about harvesting cork by clicking here.
Southern Spain on the other hand is covered with olive trees. When I was in Italy they had centuries old trees that are unfortunately being attacked by a virus. Fortunately that is not happening in Spain.
On our way to Granada we stopped at a family run Olive farm. I’ve been to Olive oil farms before where they told you about the oil but this one was the most informative I’ve ever been to.
Some of the things I learned – two years is the shelf life, every bottle should have a date on it, there is no such thing as extra extra virgin olive oil, there is no such thing as a black olive – it is a ripe olive, olives are very tender and need to be pressed within a few hours of being picked, and picked olives and oil needs to be kept at less than 80 degrees to avoid degradation of the oil!
A lot of the ancient trees were torn out and replanted with new to do more intensive farming. There is a movement to stop the practice but we saw new, young groves everywhere. They stretched for hundreds of miles.
The grounds of the farm we visited, Basillippo Organic, were beautiful too.
Granada is located in southern Spain, and sits at about 2400 feet just about an hour from the Mediterranean. In the 13th century it became the capital of the last Muslim-ruled state in the Iberian Peninsula. It was then conquered in 1492 by Catholic Monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and was transformed into a Christian state over the next century. It was also here that Christopher Columbus turned up and asked for money to try to find a more direct route to India by sailing west. The rest is history.
The Alhambra citadel and palace located here is one of the most famous monuments of Islamic architecture and one of the most visited tourist sites in Spain. It is a palace and fortress complex one of the best-preserved palaces of the historic Islamic world. The complex was begun in 1238 on the site of earlier fortresses. After the Christian reconquest the palaces were partially altered. And it became the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella. After being allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries, with its buildings occupied by squatters, it was rediscovered following the defeat of Napoleon. The rediscoverers were first British intellectuals and then other American and northern European travelers including Washington Irving who wrote Tales of the Alhambra.
The Alhambra sits on the side of the Sierra Nevadas.
This was the view from the Moorish quarter.
We could have gone to see the caves where people live but chose not to, they are high on a hill above the city in a neighborhood called Sacromonte. Because of the limestone the stone is soft and it was easy to carve out a cave, in fact the caves were dug by people looking for treasure that was thought to be buried there. Some are nice dwellings, others not. This city has a lot of young people because of the University, and some of them chose to live in the caves. We saw some of them bathing in the river, they were easy to spot carrying all their belongings with them, often with a dog trailing behind.
The name Granada means pomagranate in Spanish so we saw the symbol everywhere.
As we were driving through the countryside in both the South of Spain and the North we saw storks nesting in these huge nests!
The Arabs of the so-called Umayyad dynasty conquered Córdoba in 711 and made it capital of the muslim empire of Al-Andalus. The medieval Visigoth fortress in Córdoba was rebuilt after Arab designs and became a Moorish palace for the rulers. After that, 200 years of labor and thousands of workers created the Great Mosque – or Mezquita – of Córdoba.
The Mezquita of Córdoba is the largest muslim building in Western Europe. There are 856 columns of granite, jasper, marble and onyx supporting more than 400 horseshoe arches with two-coloured arch-stones. It was like walking through a forest. The simplicity of it was in stark contrast to the part the Christians built, which was elaborate, with lots of gold and icons.
Madrid is the capital of Spain and the center of the country. In fact in the Palza Del Sol is a marker from which every point in the country is measured.
Madrid is a lot like DC where the building are huge. I was struck by the huge bronze sculptures that sit on top of buildings old and new.
Our hotel was near the stadium and we just happened to be there the night that Madrid played Liverpool for the 2022 Championship. There were tens of thousands of people on the street! Everyone was walking around with Fly Emerates tshirts on (their sponsor) with a team scarf around their neck. As we walked by the stadium the ground actually vibrated with the sound from the crowd.
It was only later that we realized that the game wasn’t even played there it was in Paris and the people in the stadium were just watching it on the screen. Someone said that is not unusual, what do I know! Real Madrid (real means royal in Spanish) won and the next day 400,000 people gathered around the fountain in front of City Hall. It depicts the Roman goddess Cybele riding a chariot pulled by two Lions in her hands she clasps the keys of the city.
I was really anxious to go to Madrid to see the Sorolla Museum and I was not at all disappointed. Jauquin SorolIa was a painter of light, of the impressionists school and a contemporary of John Singer Seargant. His home (now a museum) was fabulous. An oasis in the middle of the city. We had to skip the Prado Museum to go see it but it was well worth it.
Random Shots around the city.
From Madrid we took the high speed train to Barcelona. We stayed in Barcelona then traveled to the Basque Country visiting Pamploma, Balbao, and San Sebastian.
click the link below to read Part 2!