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Traveling in Spain & France

by Tom Beall
Tom and Lanna on the Rock of Gibralter

Photo credits: Tom Beall
Postcards: Phantom's collection


Getting there:
We left our home in Denver on the first leg of our journey to Spain. We got stranded in Chicago overnight when American Airlines cancelled our Madrid flight without informing us. We were booked out the next day and we finally arrived in Madrid at 7:45 a.m., tired, disheveled, but pleased to be in Spain nevertheless. But our first destination was Mijas, on the Mediterranean Sea, where we'd be staying with friends, so we still had some traveling to do before we could unpack our bags and relax. And we were supposed to be meeting our traveling companions at the Madrid train station so there was no time to waste. Together we would travel by train from Madrid, which is in the center of Spain, to Malaga on the coast. Then we'd rent a car and drive to Mijas. There was only enough time to make a quick phone call to our Mijas friends to get voluminous driving directions to their place. We left our home in Denver on the first leg of our journey to Spain. We got stranded in Chicago overnight when American Airlines cancelled our Madrid flight without informing us. We were booked out the next day and we finally arrived in Madrid at 7:45 a.m., tired, disheveled, but pleased to be in Spain nevertheless. 

But our first destination was Mijas, on the Mediterranean Sea, where we'd be staying with friends, so we still had some traveling to do before we could unpack our bags and relax. And we were supposed to be meeting our traveling companions at the Madrid train station so there was no time to waste. Together we would travel by train from Madrid, which is in the center of Spain, to Malaga on the coast. Then we'd rent a car and drive to Mijas. There was only enough time to make a quick phone call to our Mijas friends to get voluminous driving directions to their place.

By some miracle we found our traveling companions and together we finally boarded the Malaga train. We compared notes and found out that their first flight to Spain was cancelled too, so we had lots of misadventures to catch up on as we got comfortable in the train's cabin. We moved swiftly through the Spanish countryside, listening to the rattling tracks in cadence with the passing power poles. The countryside was cultivated in vegetables, olive trees, oranges, and, of course, tomatoes. The vast majority however, was rolling hill after rolling hill of ancient and new olive trees.

We finally arrived in Malaga and eventually rented our mini-van, loaded up, and headed on to Mijas, following those aforementioned voluminous directions. About an hour and a half later we are sitting on our host's lovely veranda, sipping a glass of chilled wine, reminiscing, and getting ready to go to dinner. We are booked for 10:30, which is considered normal for dinner here. We must drive further up this very steep hill that everyone lives on, traversing narrow lanes, and parking in teensy parking lots hanging on the edge of the mountain, but it was worth it. The meal was wonderful, ordered by our lovely Spanish-speaking hostess, and we finished about 12:30 in the morning! Believe me, our butts were dragging at this point so we headed home to a much-needed sleep.

Journal entry: First day in Mijas ~ I'm up early listening to the birds, and smelling the flowers, while I await the rising sun to come up over the eastern mountain...and my late-rising companions. Soon it will light up this beautiful part of the Mediterranean Sea. From the veranda I see lovely, tall Eucalyptus trees to my left and right. Flowers adorn the curving divider between the terra cotta patio and the swimming pool. And off in the distance way below us are the white buildings of the city, sitting on the edge of the sea. The birds sing, and the fragrance of the flowers and rosemary infuse the air.

Gibralter in 1911!

Here's an old postcard of Gibraltar, early 1900s


The Rock of Gibraltar
: Today we drove to THE ROCK! The drive along the Mediterranean coast was lovely, and balmy. Entry into Gibraltar was very fast with the border guard just waving us through. We hired this very knowledgeable guide so we had a private tour. Many things about Gibraltar were enchanting, like the beautiful limestone caves, and the monkeys that will sit on your shoulder, but by far, the most interesting feature was the long battery tunnel the English chiseled out of the granite. Several hundred meters long, winding just inside the outer shell of the rock itself, this tunnel had side galleries that had openings for the cannon. These cannon overlooked the land approach to the rock, and were responsible for wreaking much havoc on any Spaniards trying to re-take the rock.

The Rock of Gibraltar has been a British Colony since 1704, when Britain captured it during the war of the Spanish Succession. Spain has never really accepted the loss of Gibraltar and is still today trying to regain its territory back from
the British, who are determined to hold onto it. 
Gibralter

The Treaty of Utrecht says that the Catholic King of Spain yields to the Crown of Great Britain all of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications and everything else forever!

(Editor's note: if you're interested in the history of Gibraltar, go to Yahoo! and search on Gibraltar. It will take you to a site that displays the Treaty of Utrecht, a short but interesting little document at the center of this land dispute. You can easily find tons of other info and great photos of The Rock.)

The next evening, after a day of sightseeing and shopping, we decided we would have sangria, paella, and flamenco dancing, all at the same time. We had already been introduced to sangria. This is a delightful drink, combining really cheap red wine with chopped up fresh apples, oranges, and bananas that made it not only tasty but very refreshing. The famous Spanish Paella (pronounced pie-ay-yah) consisted of a large quantity of rice with saffron, peppers, onion, and lots of shellfish, shrimp, and fish, in the seafood version. There are many versions that have meat, or ham, and all are likely as good or better than ours. We were a little disappointed in the low level of flavor, but I for one, liked it fine.

During the meal we were entertained by three Flamenco dancers, just a few steps from our table, dancing on a platform of wood about ten inches high. The man was, according to the ladies in our party, "drop dead gorgeous", and the two women, both perhaps in their early twenties, were equally "drop dead gorgeous". They were wonderfully entertaining. You could see in their faces and shining eyes that they really enjoyed what they were doing.

Our next adventure took all of us to another home owned by our Australian friends. This one was in Salabracio, about 150 kilometers east on the highway alongside the sea. We stayed there for three nights, perched high on the hillside overlooking the sea below. We talked, we shared drinks on the veranda, and made our daily plans. A trip to a small mountain village was in order next. We climbed high into the Sierra Nevadas, stopping finally in a small village to sample their food, wine, and hospitality. Although isolated completely from the sea, the village was like others we had seen, with their narrow, winding streets and white washed walls. took all of us to another home owned by our Australian friends. This one was in Salabracio, about 150 kilometers east on the highway alongside the sea. We stayed there for three nights, perched high on the hillside overlooking the sea below. We talked, we shared drinks on the veranda, and made our daily plans. A trip to a small mountain village was in order next. We climbed high into the Sierra Nevadas, stopping finally in a small village to sample their food, wine, and hospitality. Although isolated completely from the sea, the village was like others we had seen, with their narrow, winding streets and white washed walls.

The following day, we drove to Granada. Great and beautiful Granada. The seat of rule for over 800 years of Moorish kings, who left behind the wondrous Alhambra Palace. This huge edifice, located on a hill in the center of Granada, surrounded by guard towers, embattlements, and a moat, was quite an eye-catcher. Ornate ceilings of multi-colored tile and paintings adorned nearly all of the living areas. The floors were tile or marble, and intricately laid in a wide variety of designs and natural colors. Between the buildings were lovely gardens for relaxation and meditation. In the early 1800s, while the palace was still a ruin and not the beautifully restored wonder that it is today, Washington Irving stayed for a time in the palace, and wondered and wrote of what he saw and learned. We took the audio self-guided tour of it and listened to Irving's tales of history and fancy as we leisurely strolled the buildings and its gardens.

 

Alhambra Gardens
The Alhambra Palace Gardens, Granada, Spain

Journal entry
: We say goodbye to our friends from Australia, and with our traveling companions, we leave for Malaga, our train to Paris, and a new adventure. When we arrive in Malaga, we find our way back to the car rental agency, and then to the train station, then we have a very nice relaxing ride to Madrid on a faster train than our trip over to Malaga.

The Suecia Hotel, our destination, is small, but very comfortable and we have a pleasant evening walking downtown Madrid, eating Tapas at a sidewalk café nestled within an enormous courtyard. There is a good shopping in the city so we spend some time buying gifts. Tapas, by the way, are the Spanish version of Chinese Dim Sum. You know, the meal with lots of samples of different foods?

The next morning we head to the train station, only to be informed that our train to Paris is cancelled due to a train strike in the North of Spain. Our plans to ride through the Spanish and French countryside are now gone. We can book a night train directly from Madrid to Paris, leaving at seven in the evening, rather than the morning train we had scheduled. If we have learned anything on this trip, it’s to be patient, and be prepared for anything. The only accommodations on the night train still available are the sleeping cars, which suits us fine since we’ll need the rest now that we are scheduled to arrive in Paris at eight-thirty in the morning. We discover that this is the right thing to do because now we have more time to spend the day in Madrid.

Seeing the sights in Madrid: Our first stop was the Palazio Real, home to many Spanish monarchs until mid this century. Now, even though the Palazio Real is a museum for all to see and enjoy, the present king and queen hold state dinners here at an enormous table capable of seating 150 people, which is decorated with fine china, and ornate decorative structures resembling small buildings. My favorite room though, is the music chamber, containing two Stradivarius violins, one Stradivarius viola, and one Stradivarius cello! I can just imagine the incredibly beautiful music that is played in that room, sometimes they say, by some of the world's most renowned musicians. The palace has more than 2,000 rooms, so we see only a small portion of them, but we are simply overwhelmed by the opulence of each that we see, and I wonder what it would be like to live in this manner.

Next we took a taxi to the world famous Museo Del Prado. There, some of Spain’s most famous artists are on display. We saw the Spanish masters like El Greco and Goya -- Goya was my absolute favorite. His were the only paintings that had smiles and humor. Oh, how challenging it must have been to paint on canvases as large as some I viewed.

After the Prado we returned to the train station and awaited our departure. Dinner in the dining car was delicious and fun. Lovely white table-cloths, crystal, china, and very attentive waiters almost compensated for the perpetual cigarette smoke we endured during our entire trip. We passed the night listening to the clatter of the rails, and the occasional train going the other way. We were traveling at about 200 km per hour, fast and close enough to cause our ears to feel the whoooomp and the increased air pressure when other trains passed us.

Paris - The train pulled into Paris exactly on time on a beautiful sunny morning. We felt reasonably refreshed and ready to tackle our new traveling challenges. We stepped out to the taxi area, and immediately found a minivan capable of taking all four of us and our luggage to our small, cozy French hotel, the Sophie Germain Hotel, located in the Latin Quarter. (So-called because for centuries students studied there and Latin was considered the language of the well-educated.) Although small, the hotel was clean, and the desk staff spoke English. I am sure our constant questioning must have been irritating at times, but Sophia, the hotel manager was always gracious and could answer them all "Where, when, and how…"constantly echoed in her ears, and her response was always, "no problem."

We set out to explore. Walking down the avenue, we found a lovely side street with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meat, prepared foods, fresh bread, flowers, and most anything you would need to prepare a fine, fresh meal. We sat in a small sidewalk café on the corner and ate croissants, jam, butter, and some really fine, strong French coffee, and watched people walk by, just as the French do. While eating, we planned our day, deciding on a combination tour that took us across most of the bridges crossing the Seine River, passing most of the notable buildings and landmarks, boating on the Seine, and finishing with the Eiffel Tower.


We consulted with Sophia about finding the tour office, and she directed us to the bus heading toward the Opera house. Sophia’s instructions were accurate, so we even had time for lunch first. We picked another sidewalk café and had our first sample of French onion soup. Wow, was it great!

Our tour took us all over the city, giving us glimpses and brief explanations of the interesting landmarks and bridges. The queue at the Eiffel Tower lasted about forty-five minutes. We heard that sometimes the wait can be as long as two hours, so we got lucky.

Not far from the tower, just behind and to the west, was the small road underpass where Princess Diana lost her life. Inside it, along with the other items left in her memory, is a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty, presented by the United States.

Every evening we would simply walk a boulevard, find a restaurant that looked good and order a meal. We were never disappointed, even though we didn’t always know exactly what we were ordering. French was not as easy for me to interpret on a menu as Spanish. Nevertheless, we never ordered anything by accident that we wouldn’t have ordered anyway. After all, Escargot is the same wherever it’s written. And if you want "real" French onion soup, this is the place for it. I really like this soup, but rarely have it at home for some reason. Here however, I would order it for lunch and dinner, and was never disappointed. Coffee was always wonderful, strong black stuff, just shy of espresso, and the desserts were delicious.

Now that we had seen most of the major attractions from either bus or boat, we could pick and choose those we want to see much closer. We needed a day to visit Versailles, and another to see the Louvre, and then another day to see the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Obelisk, the Palace De Concorde, then stroll the Champs Elysees.

Our tour took us to Versailles, last occupied by Louis the 16th and Marie Antoinette, the ones who lost their heads during the French Revolution. Like the palace in Madrid, we were simply overwhelmed by the opulence and splendor of it all. It’s no wonder the peasants revolted! While people in the streets starved, the privileged were surrounded by food, gold, and paintings. Wonderful treasures filled hundreds of rooms. One magnificent room, the Gallery of Mirrors, was where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, officially ending World War I.

The Louvre. Awesome is a word that comes to mind. Not poetic I know, but fitting nevertheless. This building is over half a mile long. Can you believe it? And it’s three stories of some of the world's most valuable and famous treasures. The queue to get in was nearly as long as the building and it took us about fifty minutes to reach the entrance. Once inside the adventure began. The museum map supplied was adequate, but I got lost anyhow. I managed to find the Mona Lisa, and the Winged Victory, but I became lost looking for Venus de Milo. Hours went by, and I looked at so many wonderful things, but only occasionally figuring out where I was, until I gratefully located an exit, and wandered out into the sunshine. Like the Prado in Madrid, I began wondering how many more old paintings I could stand to look at in one day. Call me uncultured, but I had had enough for that trip. I would gladly go again though, to see if I could find Venus de Milo.

From the Phantom's postcard collection
Old postcard of Notre Dame, circa 1928.  Notice any changes?

When we visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, the queue was short. This is still a functioning church, offering daily masses. We did not see the hunchback, of course, since he was only a figment of Victor Hugo’s imagination, but it was easy to visualize him swinging from one of the massive towers that flank the main building. Inside, Notre Dame is just breathtaking in its medieval splendor, filled with carved wooden objects of the Catholic Church, and incredible stained-glass windows. Whether you are Catholic, or even religious, you cannot help but be moved by the somber, yet somehow living atmosphere inside. It’s interesting to remember that this building was standing and holding mass, nearly four centuries before the United States was settled by Europeans.

We left Notre Dame, and began the long walk toward the Arch of Triumph. Along the way we wandered past the Louvre, and on to the Obelisk. This tall, beautiful relic from Egypt, was carried intact and placed at the beginning of the Champs Elysees as a memorial to the over one thousand French nobles who lost their heads here, where the guillotine stood. Louis the 15th and Marie Antoinette were beheaded on this spot. On we walked, right up the Champs Elysees, looking at the chic Parisian shops, finally stopping for lunch at the George V sidewalk café. This café is famous because it is ideally located just a few blocks from the Arch, and finds its way into many paintings and photographs. As usual, we had a very nice meal, and watched Parisians, and lots of tourists wander by watching us.

Arch De Triumph
Another famous Paris landmark
From there we walked the final leg of this slightly over two and a half mile walk, ending at the famous Arch of Triumph. Commissioned by Napoleon as a tribute to his many victorious battles, it was completed in time for his funeral procession. It’s awesome up close. There are really two arches joined as one so that you can pass through from any direction.

The inside has the names of famous soldiers who fought with Napoleon, with the underlined names belonging to those who died in battle. Nearly centered under the arch is France's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, guarded continually, and illuminated by a constant flame at the head of the crypt. The outside, on four faces, has very grandiose carvings of battle scenes and one of Napoleon being crowned Emperor.

Our visit to Paris came to a close when we said goodbye to our traveling companions. We were on our way home, and they were leaving for Normandy, then on to a week-long tour of Germany. We envied them in some ways, but we had seen enough for one trip and were ready to go home.


If you'd like some information on the hotels we stayed in, here are their websites:

The Hotel Suecia, in Madrid http://www.hotelsuecia.com
The Sophie Germain Hotel, Paris http://utell.com/static/welcome_01484.html#top


 
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