Our latest travel adventure took us to Spain and Portugal, two countries we have had on our radar for quite some time. The first two weeks of the trip was an organized tour that included a river trip on Portugal’s Douro River and the third week in Barcelona was on our own.
We departed Sun Lakes on Monday, June 17 for our flight to Atlanta and then transferred to an overnight flight to Madrid, Spain. We arrived in Madrid early on the morning of June 18, collected our bags and located our driver who would take us to our hotel. Since it was just past 8 a.m. in Madrid, we sat back and marveled at the sights of the lively capital of Spain as our driver dealt with the morning rush hour traffic.
Bright and early Wednesday morning we were up early for a tour of Madrid. We drove along Madrid’s wide and fashionable avenues and boulevards featuring beautiful fountains and historical monuments. A large percentage of the city is dedicated to parks and gardens for Madrid’s 3.2 million residents to use and enjoy. We passed the U.S. Embassy and City Hall before embarking on a walking tour of the Plaza Mayor de Madrid. The Plaza Mayor was built when the Hapsburg Empire ruled Spain and was the center of Old Madrid. Government offices, private residences and shops are housed in this historical landmark while restaurants and cafes located inside the walls of the plaza provide the perfect setting to people watch while enjoying a cup of coffee or a glass of sangria.
We moved on to the Mercado De San Miguel, one of Madrid’s oldest and most stunning markets that caters to locals as well as tourists. We strolled the aisles of this delightful marketplace which opened in 1916 and is an example of early 20th century architecture. Stalls throughout the market offer many types of cuisine from throughout Spain which included everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to gourmet Iberian ham, cheeses, olives, fresh seafood and Spanish wine. Tapas (a hot or cold appetizer or snack in Spanish cuisine) bars can also be found within the market giving both locals and tourists a place to meet and enjoy the gastronomic treasures found within the market’s walls.
We walked on to the Royal Palace. Citizens and tourists awaited the arrival of King Felipe VI, whom was on horseback. The King was arriving at the Palace to celebrate his fifth anniversary on the throne.
We boarded our bus and traveled on to the Prado Museum. The Prado Museum is the National Spanish Art Museum which houses a collection of 3100 works of art and features paintings by Spanish artists El Greco, Goya and Velazquez.
At the end of the city tour my husband and I returned to the hotel to freshen up before our late afternoon reservation at Restaurante Sobrino De Botin. A Madrid fixture for nearly 300 years, this restaurant is representative of Castilian style cuisine and was recommended to us by a Sun Lakes resident. Because of its popularity, reservations are hard to come by, so we made a reservation before we crossed the pond. Botin was established in 1725 and is recognized as the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world by the Guinness Book of Records. The restaurant has three dining rooms on different floors with wood beamed ceilings and is popular with locals as well as tourists. The specialty of the restaurant is roast suckling pig and roast lamb that is cooked in the wood fired oven that dates back to the restaurant’s beginning. I couldn’t pass up the house specialty and ordered the roast suckling pig. The skin was crispy and the pork was tender, juicy and tasty. After our meal a waiter gave me a personal tour of the restaurant that included the Horno (the oven room), the kitchen, the Bodega (cellar) and the wine cave. We enjoyed the experience of dining in this beautiful and historical restaurant where Ernest Hemmingway, Goya, and the King and Queen of Spain have dined.
On our last day in Madrid we took a taxi to Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun) which is one of the busiest public squares in the city and walked along the meandering passageways that fan out from the central hub of the square. We found our way back to the Mercado De San Miguel and stopped for tapas and a cold beer before spending more time in the Plaza Mayor. We soon prepared for the highlight of our stay in Madrid-a Flamenco show.
We traveled to the old Hapsburg Quarter of Madrid to Corral de la Moreria which is sometimes referred to as the “Cathedral of Flamenco.” We enjoyed a dinner of exceptional traditional Spanish cuisine before the two musicians, three singers and three dancers came to the stage. Our table was located just next to the stage, for which the floor must be replaced monthly, in this intimate venue and we could feel the breeze as they twirled their shawls, or flipped the skirts of their Flamenco dresses. This Flamenco club lived up to its name as the performers delivered performances that blended their passion for music and dance into an unforgettable evening.
The next morning we returned to the Madrid Airport to fly to Lisbon (Lisboa in Portuguese), which is only a short hour and twenty minute flight. Lisbon is the capital and largest city in Portugal. This hilly coastal city, built on seven hills, is very cosmopolitan and is located in the western Iberian Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean and Tagus River. The tour of the city included driving through areas with pastel colored houses and buildings with unique and charming balconies as well as Azulejos tiles on the facades of many of the buildings. Jacaranda trees, oleander and bougainvillea added colorful accents to a stunningly colorful city.
We stopped at Belem Tower which is an iconic landmark in the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1515 as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor and a monument to Portugal’s Age of Discovery. The ornate stone carvings on the exterior of the tower introduced Manueline (Portuguese late Gothic) architecture to the world and is a stunning example from the 16th century.
Our next stop was at the Jeronimos Monastery, another impressive example of Manueline architecture, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked through the Cloisters and marveled at the beauty of this architectural masterpiece.
By far, my favorite part of the Lisbon city tour was the walking tour of the Alfama District in Lisbon’s Old Quarter.
The narrow and hilly maze of medieval alleys are lined with shops, cafes and colorful pastel reidences decorated with tile facades, wrought-iron balconies, pots overflowing with brightly colored flowers and drying laundry.
There are many benefits to traveling, but one of the joys is experiencing the foods of a country or region. After our arrival in Lisbon, it wasn’t long before we were introduced to Portuguese egg custard tarts known as Pastel de Nata.
These delicious and highly addictive tarts have a crisp pastry shell that are filled with a creamy, sweet custard and dusted with ground cinnamon. It is said that Portuguese nuns would use egg whites to starch their habits and the overabundance of egg yolks led to this tasty dessert.
After two days in Lisbon, it was time to travel north enroute to Porto where we will meet our ship for a cruise on The Douro River, Portugal’s River of Gold.