Always on the Verge

Reflections and connections of a life-long learner.

Basking in Basque Country; FYI: The Rain in Spain does NOT Fall Mainly on the Plain.

Our last weeks of travel were through the beautiful Cantabrian and Pyrenees Mountain ranges in northern Spain – Basque Country. After busy, busy Portugal it was nice to settle into a quieter, more slowly paced part of the world. It felt like Mother Nature was conspiring on our behalf, and the rainy days we had were just perfect for allowing us time to catch our breath and reflect on our travels while the sunny days welcomed us to explore this intriguing area.

Our first lodging point was in the very small village of Ramales de la Victoria, less than 30 minutes from Bilbao and the stunning Guggenheim Museum…

…with its titanium exteriors and random curves that were designed to catch the light. The riverside patio features the sculpture Tall Tree & the Eye by Anish Kapoor.

The building’s architect, Frank Gehry, says that he included this ship’s prow portion of the exterior as an homage to Bilbao’s nautical traditions.

The undulating curves with reflected sky felt soothing and hypnotic.

More sculpture to admire: Maman (giant spider, background left) by Louise Bourgeois; Tulips by Jeff Koons.

The interiors are just as inspiring. The curved and layered atrium which is the heart of the museum…

..with its exposed structural supports and glass walls.

We also took a day trip to Santander, the capital city on the north coast that is famous for its golden sand beaches and the emerald green parkland of the Magdalena Peninsula.

Centro Botin, which opened in 2017, is a study in contrasts with Guggenheim Bilbao. The building consists of two volumes, one for art and the other as an exhibition space. The ceramic facade cantilevers over Santander Bay, allowing breathtaking views through its glass walls.

On the day we were there we were treated to a performance piece in this colorful gallery space.

After Ramales it was on to Pomplona. Our flat was near the historic center, and one of our first walkabouts brought us to City Hall in the heart of the Old Quarter. Statues of the virtues Prudence and Justice frame the entrance and gilded lions decorate the balconies. A pediment crowns the upper level and on either side are sculptures of the Greek god Hercules.

We stopped for a late afternoon lunch at this somewhat gaudy belle époque building on the Plaza de Castillo.

On the ground level is Café Iruña, a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. We had eguneko plaka (plate of the day): a choice of soup or salad, entree of codfish or pork loin, bread, a bottle of decent white wine, and desserts – all for 15€/person.

After lunch we wandered about admiring the charming streetscapes.

I even sited a local yarn shop. The owner of this shop holds group classes and the students go “yarn bombing” – covering tree trunks and pillars and posts with knitted sleeves.

On the way home we spent some time enjoying Parque Antoniutti…

the sculptures…

…and the old burled trees.

On another day a road trip through the Pyrenees brought gorgeous panoramic views…

…featuring rolling pastures and flock after flock of sheep.

Our final destination that day was the medieval city of Bayonne, France. The lengthy waterfront is currently undergoing renovation, but we did find much too admire.

Look closely and you will see that the statues atop the building are wearing special neckwear. The town’s futball team (in this case, rugby) had just won a championship and the entire area was in the midst of celebrating.

One afternoon we decided to try our luck at wine tasting and drove through kilometers and kilometers of blooming Scotch broom on our quest for some La Rioja.

Along our way we found the answer to a question we have never asked ourselves: Just where are soup noodles made?

As for wine tasting, unfortunately we did not find even one open winery. In Spain, as in much of Europe, tastings are done by reservation and reservations are for groups of more than two people. We were just hoping…

On a more positive note, we did appreciate the wine fountain at Bodegas Irache, a winery on the site of a former Benedictine monastery. The taps are filled each morning and anyone can come get a glass of wine or water (providing you bring your own drinking vessel). The offer is good until the beverages run out, which can happen fairly early during peak tourist season or when a group of walkers come in from the Camino de Santiago. The fountain is a continuation of the tradition of generous hospitality that the Benedictine monks offered to pilgrims.

The walled city of Pamplona; in a true serendipity it seems we saved the best for last.

Northern Portugal – Photos, Photos, and More Photos (you have been warned…)

View from our patio in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro River from Porto. Some days we were tempted to just stay at home and enjoy the beauty. We had lovely evenings for cocktails al fresco before walking to one of the many neighborhood restaurants for a late dinner. It was also an easy walk down to the port wine lodges along the water.

But first: a disclaimer: Two weeks in this part of the world resulted in almost 250 photos to sort through and choose from. I figured if I kept the text relatively short and the number of photos at around 60 it would take a person with an average reading speed and a quick mouse finger under 10 minutes to make it through this post. (And where are all those middle schoolers who ask when they are going to use math skills?) I am hoping that attention spans will accommodate… Timer starts NOW!

The Ponte Dom Luís I. Bridge, designed by German architect, Téophile Seyrig, a student of French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), Originally meant for road traffic, now the upper span carries line D of the Metro along with a pedestrian walkway while the lower span has road traffic and walkway.

Looking back toward our rental – within the cluster of apartments just behind the G on the Graham’s Port Lodge sign.

Road trip: the Route of the Romans.

Guimarães, once the capital of Portugal and heralded as the “birthplace of the Portuguese nationality” or “the cradle city”.

The medieval castle, built in the 10th Century, was originally a monastery which was fortified to protect the area from Moors and Norsemen.

The unusual round brick chimneys on the the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza.

The azulejos mural on the exterior wall of the Church of our Lady of Consolation.

Quintandona – an agricultural village that was completely restored in 2006.

The historical restoration meant building all structures out of slate.

On another afternoon it was off to Manteigas to visit the Burel wool factory. At one time there were 11 fabrication plants in this mountain town. Today there are only two.

The stone buildings that house the factory.

Wall hanging at entrance…

…reveals itself to be felted sweater shapes sewn together.

The 30 foot multi-bobbin winder.

This threaded loom…

…was making this polka dot fabric.

The machine that twists the fringes at the ends of shawls, wraps, and throws. (I had never even thought about how this was accomplished – though I have many articles of clothing that have twisted fringe on the ends. Nice new piece of understanding.)

In addition to weaving, many of Burel”s signature lines are made from felted cloth. This machine is at the beginning of the felting process where the fibers get combed and pressed. The fabric is then turned into…

…whimsical pillows…

…intricately hand sewn custom pillows….

…or a variety of upholstery and wall covering applications..

On our way back to Porto we wound through Serra da Estrela, a nature park with beautiful forests and lakes.

The views were incredible and the rock formations a delight to look at.

Up early one morning (yes, 8a is early for us…), we arrive at São Bento Station to catch a train to Pinhão, in the heart of the Douro Valley wine region.

While waiting for our tour contact we have time to admire the floor-to-ceiling murals that surround us.

We are met at the Pinhão station by Paul, a resident of the valley, who takes us to a port wine vineyard with beautiful views where we enjoy a pre-lunch treat of wine, cheese, and sliced meats.

The rolling terraces that cover the hillsides all along this section of the Douro.

Lunch is at Paul’s family vineyard. (Quinta means farm.) It is a delicious multiple course meal with a variety of wines to taste. Afterwards we get a tour of their facilities – the port barrel storage and a reenactment of the harvest process, complete with the stomping of the grapes. Another new piece of learning – stomping of grapes is a regimented process, not the Lucy and Ethel version many think of. Stompers move in unison and on cue and it is very physically tiring. Wine at the end of the process is a good incentive.

Our final stop of the day is to visit the Bread and Wine museum, an interactive space that tells of the regional importance of these two products. Paul then takes us to a local bakery where we enjoy and purchase some amazing loaves. Paul also gifts us with a bag of family wines and then drives us back to our flat in Porto. Great day – and I am happy to share tour contact information if anyone is interested.

Museum time – or, in this case, Serralves – an art museum, villa and gardens. Built in the 1930’s the villa is an art deco dream. The green candlestick sculpture on the left is made of wine bottles.

Originally a private residence, the rooms evoke a luxurious lifestyle.

My favorite – the dining room, as I do love people gathered ’round the table. The French doors look out to a series of landscaped pools and gardens.

The gardens have a teapot…

…Cindrella’s slippers – back together as a pair…

…and an engagement ring at the end of a tree-lined path.

Trying it on for size.

We walk through more gardens, enjoying the Sky Mirror (Anish Kapoor) on our way to the modern art building.

Inside we are tickled with the galley of the featured artist: Joanna Vasconcelos, entitled “I’m Your Mirror”.

A closer look reveals this mural is knitted fabric with embellishments. I am awed.

There was a lace-covered bull’s head…

…and sculptures made from steam irons…

…and Bob riding the Chair-o-sel taking a photo…

…of me riding the Chair-o-sel.

At the close of one afternoon we hopped on the Metro (we had 3-day Andante cards allowing us unlimited Metro and bus travel – the procurement of which is a story unto itself, but to be saved for another less photo-filled blog post) and went to Póvoa de Varzim, a beach town at the end of the Red Line, for an amazingly wonderful fresh seafood dinner @ Restaurant 31.

Of course, our visit wouldn’t be compete without a tour of a performance space, Casa da Musica.

This very modern and somewhat controversial building, is basically a huge cube with some corners and various edges trimmed off and a symphony hall situated in the center interior. It is surrounded by undulating patios that are signed for “No Skateboarding”…Right…

Our tour guide made a great point of telling us of that the seating was “democratic” (all sound and sight lines equal) and that the funds for construction were from the European Union at the time Porto was declared the European Capital of Culture. The Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, wanted to escape the traditional box that performance spaces are typically housed in and put acoustics as a secondary priority to design. (Vision Bob cringing~)

The back wall is completely window. There is a curtain that can be drawn to shade the space.

The double glass wall we were just standing behind, as seen from the opposite side of the house. Of note: the walls are plywood with metallic rivers of actual gold fill. (Now vision Bob eye-rolling~)

Not your traditional Green Room, this one is walled with foam to aid in acoustics for small performances.

A small performance space that had to have the floor tiles scraped of their colored pattern. Patrons kept complaining of getting disoriented and feeling nauseous.

A non-designated corner that our guide says parents use for entertaining children. An architect in our group called this “Sloap: space left over after planning”.

One our last day in Porto we took a walk through Palácio de Cristal – a beautiful and peaceful panoramic garden spot…

…with flocks of peacocks.. and their shrill calls…

… and a sunset view of the Douro as it heads out to the Atlantic.

Before we know it, it is time to take a final descent on the spiral staircase for the next leg of our journey. Basque Country…here we come! Ah – but Portugal. You will stay in my heart.

Southern Portugal: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

Just like Oliver Twist with his longing for more food, we have realized that one visit to this beautiful area will just not be enough. As I mentioned to my friend and fellow travel lover, Patty Bartscher: We dived into the vast attractions of Portugal like were like first-timers at an all-you-can-eat-buffet. We wanted to try everything and we just kept piling more on our plate.

Our rental was in Seixal, just across the Tagus River from Lisbon. We arrived in town on a rainy Wednesday evening to find that the streets around our house were being blocked in anticipation of Freedom Day celebrations. Freedom Day commemorates the Carnation Revolution, a peaceful coup that overthrew the Estado Novo regime and ended 48 years of authoritarian rule. The name comes from the fact that almost no shots were fired, and Celeste Caeiro, a Portuguese pacifist, offered carnations to the soldiers when the population took to the streets to celebrate the end of the dictatorship; other demonstrators followed suit, and carnations were placed in the muzzles of guns and on the soldiers’ uniforms. On Freedom Day we were treated to parades, bands playing in the square just up the street from our house, and an evening of fireworks. Seemed like a pretty spectacular way to start our visit.
Seixal itself is quite small, but had a vibrant and engaging vibe (think Half Moon Bay, fellow coastsiders!) – friendly neighbors, great bakery (yeah, always that…) and shops, beautiful beaches. One of the best features was that the ferry dock for boats to Lisbon was less than a 15 minute walk from our digs.

We made it a point to frequent local restaurants in town and were very pleased with all of the fresh fish options. After one outing Bob decided he would venture into the world of dessert and asked the waitperson to bring us the speciality of the house. This strawberry fluff ball arrived on it’s chessboard.

And wouldn’t you know, that Queen of Hearts was edible – printed on a sheet of marshmallow.

One of our first Lisbon forays was to Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. This complex sits within a beautiful botanical park and has three large buildings with a variety of galleries.

The main hall had a featured exhibit on The Brain and contained many interactive stations to demonstrate how the brain functions. Over our heads was a gallery-long sculpture of a dendron.

Taking up an entire wall was slide show, set to music, of a plastinated brain: “preserved through impregnation with a liquid polymer for educational and instructional purposes. Created through a process of informed donor consent.”

People gathered to watch the show and see the changing colors and cross-section perspectives.

Oddly mesmerizing; almost radiant.

One corner of the exhibit explained a research study that used robots to work with autistic children. The robots are programmed to break down complex behaviors into a series of neutral interactions. The robot receives a command from an instructor; the child watches the robot along side the instructor, listens to the command, and then sees how the robot responds. Then the child responds in kind. They have found that this sequencing has made it possible for the autistic child to improve their reading of facial expressions and gestures.

After The Brain we went for a quick trip through the Founder’s Collection – lots of antiquities. My favorite was this tapestry, especially when I got up close to appreciate all of the hand work that went into its creation.

On to the Modern Wing. This unassuming piece by Fernanda Fragateiro (made of books arranged with spines down) had the witty title, “Reading the Landscape” Okay, I admit, I sometimes get more of a kick out of the clever name than the piece itself.

Featured artist, Rogério Ribeiros’s beautiful oil titled Família.

Before the Bullfight by Amadeo de Souza-Cardiso. One of the things we appreciated about this particular collection was that all of the work was by Portuguese artists, few of which we had been exposed to before. A nice change of pace, especially after having visited so many museums with classic offerings.

One day it was just about walking and looking. We climbed tons of steps and wound through lots of narrow walkways in Lisbon’s Alfama District.

On another day it was a walk about the Belém District, admiring the vast Gothic Jerónimos Monastery and then some time at Museu Coleção Berardo.

This sculpture takes up most of the hallway in the lower level of the museum.

This very compelling description…

…was next to this piece of art. So understated. I loved it.

The bold Portrait of Jacqueline, 1984, by Julian Schnabel…

…is made with broken ceramics.

We were even tickled by the graphics on the WC doors.

We walked back along the river and stopped at MAAT – the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. They have two buildings. The first is a renovated power plant. Let’s just say that Bob was awed.

One of the great things about this place was how unrestricted it was. We could walk pretty much anywhere we wanted – even climbing ladders for new views. Sort of like a play structure for adults.

View from the ground floor up to the fourth level.

And how about this set of stairs!?!

The boiler room: industry as art. (Though we are sure the place looks a lot better all cleaned up as it is now than it did when it was a hydraulic plant.)

The second building holds their art and photography exhibits. But it was the outside that captured our interest.

For all my quilting friends – inspiration???

We took one over night trip to the magical mountain city of Sintra. The red door is actually the entrance to our lodging.

It was a bit like entering a playhouse.

We walked from our accommodations up – and I do mean UP – to Quinta da Regaleira – with its romantic castle and chapel set in a luxurious park. From this angle the castle almost looks like it could be in Disneyland. The entire complex was the vision of Carvalho Monteiro, a Portuguese entomologist whose family money came from coffee and gemstones. Monteiro wanted to build a bewildering place where he could collect symbols that reflected his interests and ideologies. With the assistance of the Italian architect Luigi Manini, he rebuilt a former 4-hectare estate. In addition to other new features, he added buildings that allegedly hold symbols related to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians.

The park is filled with lakes, grottos, fountains and follies – and, in our case, a Bob.

A view of the chapel from the castle balcony.

The Ibis Bench.

The intricate carvings of the mantle in the dining room of the castle which is done in Neo-Manueline style; a revival architecture and decorative arts style developed in Portugal between the middle of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Learned something new there…

Ceiling in the living room. You know how I always like to look up, but…

…sometimes it is also good to look down. You might just catch a gorgeous floor mosaic.

Closer look at the stunning columns of the outdoor spiral staircase going from the ground floor to the second floor balcony that wraps the castle.

Just when we think we have seen the ultimate castle there’s this: Pena Palace, which is at the top of the hill. (We took a bus and a tram and then did a good bit of walking to get there.) The palace started out as a chapel then became a monastery before being left for ruin until King Ferdinand decided to rebuild the site as a summer palace for the royal family. One of the quirky features to the palace is a drawbridge that doesn’t draw. Maybe they thought the climb was insurance enough that they would be prepared for attacked.

We were not allowed to take photos of the interiors, but I did take shots of the exterior – including the tower wing with its lovely tiled walls.

The turrets at each corner of the open arcades and the clocktower (background, in red). Now this REALLY feels like Disneyland!

On our last Lisbon excursion day we went to the National Tile Museum. The building is a former monestary (seems like a common theme of late).

This is a a piece that captivated me…

…while Bob really liked this…

…and then there was the surprise of grasshoppers…

…and the urge to interpret this in quilt form…those roses…

…followed by the traditionally painted and classic blue of Portugal azulejos…

… switching to the unique rail piece that sings of movement…

…or finally, the set of tiles that looks like something I would like to have in my own home.

Now it is on to Porto. And the Portugal question is: how much of a good thing is too much of a good thing? We will see.

Three Days to Rock the Kasbah

Arrival on Easter Sunday. We had booked our digs through Airbnb and the owner recommended the services of her property manager, Abdellah, as a guide. It was our good fortune to take her suggestion as over the course of our visit we were given what felt to be a real inside view of life in this part of Morocco. This photo was taken just as we go off our ferry. The tall building to the right is a mosque. Our rental was just below that orange arrow, within the walls of the Kasbah and set amidst a warren of narrow, winding streets. (“First the Continental Hotel, then to Hawmat Zaitouna (rough translation: Olive Street), then to #73” were the directions we repeated over and over as we memorized our route.)

We had to go through 3 passport check points and two security screenings on our crossing from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier. Bob did get a brief rest break aboard the ferry. Abdellah arranged to meet us at the ferry terminal. Before he arrived we were confronted by a bevy of locals offering us rides and tours and various tourist services. It was a cacophony of marketing and persuasion techniques. When he reached us, Abdellah diverted their efforts but not before he was taken to task for “stealing” us from the folks who felt they had first dibs because they worked the terminal parking lots.

Our first evening was an unexpected treat. We were invited to the engagement party of Abdellah’s niece, to be given in the home of his parents. We tried to gracefully decline as it seemed like it would be an intrusion, but he was adamant. Upon arriving at the house we were first introduced to the men gathered upstairs. Bob stayed with them and I was escorted (not by Abdellah, but by his wife, Sara) into the women’s lounge downstairs. The main room had a large display at the entrance holding significant items and representative symbols for the engaged couple.

The party, planned for 6-10 p with dinner be served at 9p, was running late – very late. We had arrived by taxi about 7p, and spent the next two and a half hours waiting for the family of the future groom to arrive. While waiting, we were served beverages and chocolates and small snacks were passed around. There was music playing and many of the women danced. Bob says that upstairs they were pretty quiet with a number of sessions of prayers.

Finally, from out in the street we hear the sounds of the family procession, bringing gifts to the bride to be. If you look closely you can see Bob, with a smile on his face, in the far left side of the photo.

The gifts are brought downstairs and put under and around the entry table.

The engaged couple and all of their family members proceeded into the house with the trumpets and drummers following behind. The music they played sounded for all the world like a traffic jam in Times Square on New Years Eve. This lovely little lady and I (who became quite friendly over the course of the evening) held similar sentiments, but I kept my hands away from my ears.

Following the entrance there is a chunk of time devoted to photo taking – 2 hours worth, actually. Everyone is expected to get a photo taken with the couple. Abdellah, our guide and host, is the gentleman on the right.

And when I said everyone was expected to be in the photos, I meant EVERYONE. Sometimes it’s just best to smile and keep things moving along.

Finally, at about midnight, dinner was served and then the cake cut. It is another photo opportunity and the whole group gets into the action. The videographer had to fight for her space in the front row. By now it is close to 1am and the party pretty quickly breaks up. We get a ride back to the Kasbah and make our way home repeating “Continental Hotel, Zaitouna, 73.” It works.

The next morning we head out to meet Abedllah and our driver, Azding, whom Bob had actually gotten to speak with a bit during last night’s events. Along the way we come upon a tangle of ropes and look up to see…

scaffolding on a work in progress. This give an idea as to the extreme narrowness of the streets we were navigating through.

We admire the many murals we see along the way. This one is at an intersection/crossroads. During the afternoon and evening there are food stalls and merchants doing business here. Oh – and the cat! There are almost as many cats as there are people.
The first stop on our driving tour is to Charf Hill, which overlooks Tangier (on the left) and the Mediterranean (on the right). Down the slope is a cemetery with some of the oldest graves in the city.

Many people plan herb beds atop the graves.

Next stop is Malabata Lighthouse with it’s castle spire and Moroccan star. Bob, Abdellah and Azding look across to locate Charf Hill, where we just came from.

My favorite sight was the cluster of bouys that were scattered among the cedar trees.

On to Cap Spartel.

We watch the fishing boats coming in and note the variations in color in the water, indicating the rocky and hazardous entrance to the harbor. In the lower left corner is a rock painted with the Moroccan star, a task that gets repeated frequently and faithfully as it is a point of pride for the local fishermen.

Cap Spartel is also noteworthy as it is where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. Legend has it then if you are there at the right time in the morning there is a green line that can be seen separating the two bodies of water.

On our way back into the city we stop at the Caves of Hercules. Moroccans will tell you the opening represents a map of Africa. When I took the photo I saw a man sitting upon a ledge (to the lower left of the opening) looking out to sea. Speaks to varied perspectives and the delight of a found optical illusion.

Final stop: Cafe Hafa, overlooking the Bay of Tangier and known for both its mint tea and for its gatherings of writers and musicians – from Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs, to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Our evening is capped off by a dinner made for us at our flat by Abdellah’s sister, Loubna, who is also the mother of the to-be-bride from last night’s party. It was another feast with enough food to last us through the next day’s dinner as well.

Our third day, and we are off to Chefchaouen, the Blue City. It is an almost 3 hour drive so we have plenty of time for conversation. Abdellah is very candid about his thoughts and feelings about Morocco. He is frustrated with the political and economic conditions, particularly bemoaning the lack of jobs, poor educational opportunities, and difficulty in accessing health care services. (He and his wife of 7 months are expecting their first child and he will be paying privately for her doctor visits and hospital stay.) We are told that they and their friends are always looking for opportunities to improve their lives and wish for capitalism but are wary of the regulations that they feel would come along with it. Since Abdellah had arranged for Azding to drive, I asked if they had Uber in Morocco. “What’s this Uber?” he asked. What followed was a lively discussion of how the car service worked and a number of expressions of disbelief on their part. They told us that taxi licenses in Morocco are given out by the king – mostly as favors. When we questioned if their frustrations ever led them to think of relocating they tell us that they are not allowed visas as there is a concern that they would leave and not come back.

Upon arrival we walk through beautiful blue hued streets and plazas.

I am tempted by the food stands – especially those long strands of dried figs, which are delicious.

Abdellah urges us to hold on to our appetite until we get to a restaurant he favors. It is typically Moroccan, serving the same array of dishes to every diner. Bob and I are the only non-locals and I am the only woman. We have chickpeas in broth, fava beans in tomato sauce, chicken with vegetables, olives, fish, chickpea porridge, french fries (!?!?) and bread. Our bill comes to 130 MAD (dirham) or $13.45 for all four of us.

Part of our walk around the city takes us to the waterfalls.

As we leave we are taken with how much Chefchaouen reminds of of Guanajuato, particularly if Guanajuato had been done in blue.

We have collected great memories of our Kasbah days and it’s quirky and intriguing style.

We loved the warm and gracious, up-close-and-personal style of Abdellah’s tour guidance and our comfortably authentic house.

We won’t miss the many flights of stairs we had to take to get from street level to bedrooms to bathrooms to kitchen.

Yup, from the medina to the Blue City; we rocked it.

Andalusia: Olives, Flamingos, Moors, and More Olives…oh, and the Pueblos Blancas

Okay, you sharped-eyed readers – you know those are not olive trees. They are just a sample of the hectares and hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres, in case you were wondering) of grape vines we drove past as we made our way from Valencia to Fuente de Piedra, a small town that put us equidistant from a number of things we wanted to see on this next leg of our travels.

It was between a 5-6 hour trek and well before we got to Fuente de Piedra we were treated to a new agricultural landscape – olives; and as plentiful as those vineyards were, these olive groves clearly outnumbered them. Seeing the vast groves go us to thinking: what do olive processing plants do with all of those pits? We have since learned that the pits, once just considered useless waste, are now being experimented with as a filtering medium for decontaminating sewage and in water treatment plants (they remove heavy metals) ; as a fuel source (similar to ethanol); and as food (roasted and eaten as is or incorporated into energy bars). And that, folks, is why we travel: to entertain unthought of questions and to seek answers; to make connections between what we already know and what we learn; and, of course to eat.

Fuente de Piera, “the stone spring”, was popularized because of its reputation for having healing waters. This fountain, in the main town square is a tribute to the original spring.

Our rental was on the “street of oranges”. We were within an easy walk to the business district, but then so is most everyone as the town itself is small, only about 2000 people. Based on our observation of real estate and the commercial entities, this area has clearly seen better times. That said, we were glad to have chosen this locale as it gave us an opportunity to see a different facet of Spain and appreciate what is going on there economically.

Not just our street, but throughout the town there were orange trees. The trees blossom in the spring and you could smell the lovely fragrance pretty much everywhere we went.. The trees have oranges on them all year unless they are picked. The oranges are very bitter and are used primarily for marmalades, extracts or medicinal purposes.

One of our first road trips/outings was to Seville – just over an hour away. We parked the car outside the city walls and walked across a stone bridge to get into the bustling historic center (right side of the photo).

Easter week, or Semana Santa, is a riot of crowds and festivities. The Seville Cathedral is the epicenter of activities. Originally the site of a Moorish mosque, when the Romans took the city they fashioned a the Gothic-style basilica. The massive structure took over a century to build and claims to be the largest church in the world, though there are those who would debate that.

The bell tower on the cathedral and the outdoor dining options that allowed for some interesting people watching. We took advantage.

Our main sightseeing goal for Seville was to tour the Royal Alcázar Palace and Gardens. The palace was built in the seventh century and it still occasionally hosts the royal family when they visit Seville. While the original structure dates back to the Middle Ages (building seen on right), the current palace complex displays a range of architectural and cultural styles, ranging from Gothic to Baroque. This mashup of architectural elements is known as mudéjar — a Muslim and Christian artistic fusion unique to Andalusia.

The inner courtyard and one of the gardens, filled with orange trees.

Domed ceiling within the newer addition. The blue areas are doorways that open off of the upper arcade. There are small balconies that look out and over the central hallway below.

An example of the beautiful carving, hand painting, and tile work.

In the older sections there are walls and walls of tile work. I was impressed with how they angled the tiles going up the stairway to match the staircase.

Bob does his part keeping things in place.

Our second outing was a bit closer to home: some bird watching at the lagoon just outside of Fuente de Piedra.

The salt water marsh is home to the largest colony of flamingoes in Europe. It seems that the flamingoes are drawn to the salt – just as humans were. As early as the 1st Century, the Romans were collecting salt from the water bed, which dried up during the hot summer.

After time amongst the flamingoes we took a meandering drive back to our flat so we could admire the abundance of blooming spring flowers and take a closer look at the olive orchards. As you may know, all olives are green – until they go through the ripening stages from pink/red to purple to black. Olives that go into virgin olive oil must be harvested directly from the tree, not come from the ground. The growers put nets under the trees and attach a mechanical “shaker” to get the olives to fall into the net.

(You knew there was going to be a food picture, didn’t you?!?) On our way through town we stopped for a late afternoon treat at the local bakery. This delightful bite is what I am calling a Spanish twinkie: sponge cake with a cream filling that was just slightly sweet. The upscale twist is that the outside is caramelized and sprinkled with nuts and has a creme brûlée flavor. Though I have never been a fan of the Hostess concoction, this was a perfect adult indulgence.

After trying to get laundry done amidst a couple of days of intermittent rain (a washing machine but no dryer – everything had to go on the drying rack outdoors) we decided to head for the hills and the pueblos blancas, the “white towns” of Andalusia. Many of these communities were established by the Moors and still have an old-world charm. The white walls are an influence of the Berber architecture of North Africa, the Moors native land. First on our list was Arcos de la Frontera, the largest of the hill towns.

The plan was to park our car in the modern section of the city and take a bus up to the top of the mountain. We lucked into a parking space, found the bus station, and were waiting (and waiting) for our bus to arrive when a kind gentleman who was a driver for another line told us that the old quarter was so crowded that the buses were having a hard time getting down into city. Well, you can imagine our response to that…and back we went to our car to head for the next town on our list – hopefully one with less congestion.

Along our route we stopped to admire Benamahoma, a compact village of about 500 people. It is surrounded by old pine forests, and the steep winding road with its many switchbacks was a thrill in itself.

What came to be our favorite stop, Grazalema, is a high mountain village in a natural park. This photo was taken from where we parked our car. We climbed the edge of the hill to get to the central square, just behind the tall white building on the right of the photo.

The white washed buildings and manicured trees that surround the square.

The medieval-aged water fountain just off to the side of the square.

A tribute to local traditions; this area of Spain is know for its bullfighting.

On our drive between the villages of Grazalema and Rhonda we passed through Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park with its limestone mountains and a cork forest. Cork is taken from a tree every nine years. Contrary to what I had always thought, the stripping of the cork bark does not harm the tree. The lower portions of many of these trees (which are in the oak family) have just been stripped of their cork bark. The year is carved on the tree so that adequate time is allowed between harvests.

Mainly of Roman origins, Rhonda assumes a defensive perch on the edge of a deep gorge.
There are three bridges that span the canyon.

Navigating the maze of narrow pedestrian streets is is a fun way to spend some time in the late afternoon.

Upon leaving the city we pass the bull ring with its statue of the toreador swirling his cape.

Our next stop: 3 days in Tangier, Morocco. If I can sort through my photos fast enough I just might get another blog post out in the next week. On the other hand, we are now in Seixal, Portugal (across the river from Lisbon) and our list of things to do is long and tempting. An abundance of blessings, for sure.

Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias; Extraordinario!

Focusing on the good stuff.

Valencia: from our downtown third floor flat we enjoyed a week of busy urban living. We were less than a mile from the historic city center, less than a mile from the modern art museum, and within temptation’s reach of a multitude of restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries. By walking just a few blocks from our rental we came to what was once the river Turia. The river has been diverted (a response to a flood in 1957 that inundated 60% of the city, with 60 lives lost) and the river bed has been paved over and made into this 5-mile green space of sports facilities, parks, bike and walking trails, fountains, sculptures, and event spaces.

The crown jewel of this oasis is The City of Arts and Sciences. It is a modern architectural complex that totally wowed us. And, while we had wonderful visits to The Silk Exchange, City Market, and IVAM (Institut Valencià d’Art Modern), and a road trip to Sagunda to check out the Roman Castle; the entirety of this blog post will be sharing what we thought was our best day of the stay.

Let’s start with the Palace of Arts. It is a 40,000 square meter, 15-story complex – it’s huge! And it’s gorgeous. This performing arts center is home to the city’s opera, a variety of musical ensembles and, with Placido Domingo as a major supporter, a training center for young opera tenors.

Front entry with its distinctive plume-shaped arch, affectionately christened by locals as “the feather”, that skims across the steel-plated and ceramic-skinned dome of the building.

Close up of the feather flowing over the dome.

For good measure, the feather as it tapers to a point at the opposite side of the dome.

Standing directly under the feather…just had to include this as it has an other-worldly, almost cartoonish, look to it.

We opted for a tour of the facility as we were eager to see how it compared to performance spaces we have worked in. Our guide took us indoors and three flights underground, where we were ushered through a maze of rehearsal spaces and into their smallest performance space – used for experimental theater and as rehearsal space.

Next we went up five flights to the main lobby.

View from the front of the lobby (that feather tip is now right over our heads). Through the windows we can admire the other buildings and get a sense of how they flow together.

Our second performance space with a set just readied for an upcoming Spanish opera. This house is one of four that are connected via a shared backstage area. Each stage backs up against the other, forming an X-shape.

Here’s a better visual of how that works: We are standing backstage of one house, looking across at another house, and there is a house on our left and one on our right. The floors are on wheels and can move in and out. Just so you know, this part of our tour was a fortunate serendipity given to us as an unscheduled behind-the-scenes peek. We had told our guide about our interest in the technical aspects of the space and, since it was just Bob and I, she took us back and showed us around. We got to wander a bit and watch the crews at work.

A closer view of one of the movable floor units.

Another of the adjoining theater houses.

On the rear wall of this house was a beautiful mural, “The Dancers”.

Back out to the lobby to catch an elevator for the main hall. We could have opted to use the snail of a staircase (which was featured in the George Clooney movie, Tommorowland). Haven’t seen the movie but guess we will add it to our list. Then we will keep our eyes peeled to see if we can actually spot the stairs.

This was our view as we walked into The Sala Principal (Main Hall) which seats 1,470 people.

As seen from the front of the house.

On stage, they were finishing construction on the set for “Rigoletto”.

The walls are all finished with ceramic tile, which makes it an acoustic challenge. To address the sound bounce, the architect lined the side walls with curves.

The back walls undulate with convex shapes. This is one of those places that screamed for touch. It was allowed.

Each seat has built in audio and provides for simultaneous translation. The same manufacturer that makes seats for Ferrari was commissioned to make these.

Attention to detail: these are one of the unique door pulls. On the opposite side of the female head there is a male head. Other doors had dancing forms and heads of horned bulls.

Our tour over, it was back outdoors to admire the other buildings in the complex.