Our Adventures By Disney Southern Spain tour began officially when we boarded our plane a day early (time ch-ch-changes) in order to arrive in Madrid on the day the tour started. We were greeted just outside of Customs by one of our tour guides who made us feel 'right to home' with friendly, Spanish accent... Yes, it's true. On every Adventures By Disney tour, one of the guides will be native to the region you are touring; >)
He placed us in a van that took us straight to our hotel. Hotel Preciados is located in the heart of the Madrid Theatre district... akin to New York City's Broadway. We ventured out to explore on our own before the scheduled Welcome Dinner and were immediately aware of one big difference between Spain and United States: the streets in downtown Madrid were very narrow... sometimes so narrow only one car could pass and pedestrians had to hug the wall! At first, we didn't understand why, but as the tour progressed, we realized that Spain has a far-reaching history with many buildings that pre-date the concept of automobiles. So, rather than logical grids like most American cities use, streets in Spain are designed to 'go around' history. See how that is?
I took lots of pictures to show examples of this... but the second day of the tour, our backpack was 'pick-pocketed' and our camera was the loss we incurred. Hence, my first TIP of the Trip: When traveling abroad, be aware that there are cultures with different values and morals (In Spain, they are called Gypsies; >), and -- while it may make total sense to put your backpack on the bench next to you at Disney World -- it might be a better idea to hold your backpack in your lap when touring with an Adventure tour in a different culture. Long story short, I will be using lots of words in the first two days of this report to attempt to 'paint' pictures for you.
There we were, hugging the walls of Madrid and looking at menus in another language (imagine that!) with display cases of dead eels. octopi, and other forms of seafood we didn't recognize.... We quickly realized we were too jet-lagged to be out on our own without a guide and went to the Starbucks on the corner for the Spanish version of a chicken sandwich and a latte. Then, we scooted back to the safety of our elegant (if somewhat small) hotel room to rest until dinner when we met the rest of our group.
We were a small group, even by Adventures By Disney standards. There were 10 of us, 12 including the guides, and no kids... for me, part of the joy of the Costa Rica tour was playing with the children. "This will be interesting," I thought, "to compare what it's like with and without children." There were some differences that I will mention along the way; ultimately, though, what I discovered is that we are all kids at heart. Anywho, our first 'official' activity was dinner on the first day. We met in the lobby of the hotel, made brief introductions, and took a short walk to the restaurant (the benefit of a hotel right in the center of where "it" is happening; >)
Our first Disney surprise was the restaurant itself. Built over Roman ruins, part of the floor was glass and we could see the 2000+ year old ruins underneath us. Realizing the width and depth and history in Spain was a re-occurring theme for me on the adventure... Civilization spanning over 2000 years underneath where we are sitting, walking, eating, talking, etc. Imagine! Dinner was a series of tapas (aka appetizers) followed by an entree then dessert. Of course, Alan and I were on the sugar-free plan which, more often than not, was fresh fruit. I also chose to travel as a vegetarian, knowing that meat around the world is often too exotic for me (foreshadowing, here; >) Happily, Spain knows how to prepare vegetables, and I will have some pictures to prove it later in the report.
First day done, everyone was a little crispy from the flights across the Big Blue so we meandered back to the hotel with plans to meet up early and tour Madrid.
Day 2... La Gran Ciudad
The Royal Palace was a just a (metaphoric) hop and a skip away, and we headed there right after breakfast. Breakfast in Spain.. Don't go looking for pancakes, French toast, or fried potatoes. It's just not happening. Instead, what you'll find are cold meats, cheese, bread to wrap around them, and Tortillas (an egg and potato frittata-like presentation) We found Tortillas at every breakfast, served sometimes hot, sometimes cold. For us Westerners, there was also some kind of egg and hot meat served at every breakfast buffet. Sweet breads and Flan-like desserts could also be found if sweet is how you eat in the morning time; >)
OK, back to the Royal Palace tour.. Remember back in 6th grade when you were studying the kings and queens of Spain who made history in the years before Isybella sent Christopher Columbus to find a new sea route to the Indies? Well, they ALL lived in this palace of 2800 rooms. The current king and queen live in the palace when they are in Madrid. That's a long time; gave me pause for thought. What I found even more mind expanding is that -- from 1939 to 1985 -- Spain was a dictatorship. And the dictator lived in the palace, too. When he died, the Spanish populace turned to Socialism as the basis of their government and re-instated the king and queen. This palace has seen ALOT! We couldn't take any pictures (no loss for me LOL), because the flashing lights damaged the tapestries and carpets that already hundreds of years old. There is really one word to describe the palace: Ornate. Everywhere. The ceilings are at least 20 feet high, and the chandeliers weigh hundreds of pounds each. Every room is themed. One interesting fact I learned: The Spanish kings and queens of old were VERY small. The chairs and beds looked like children's size from my perspective.
Once the tour of the Palace was finished (which included checking out the display of armor for knights and horses), we climbed into a bus and headed into another part of the city to watch the artisans create masterpieces of tapestry and carpet. Again, no pictures allowed. For anyone who does any kind of art involving threads/yarns, this is an incredible demonstration. They work off vertical looms of string, adding the color horizontally and using a painting to guide their choice of color. The number of bobbins around each artist indicated to me that they were weaving in 60 - 100 colors on each tapestry - free form. All I can say is: WOW. The end products were exquisitely rich in depth and hue and cost thousands of dollars per square meter. More than the end product, though... I wanted me one of those looms!
Lunch was another group activity at a restaurant nearby where we were served tapas, salad, an entree of either swordfish or pork (I had delicious grilled vegetables and quesas aka cheese), and dessert. Every meal included at least one kind of wine, but Alan and I stayed with coca-light.
We were on our own after lunch. Naptime! Some folks -- the hearty ones -- went to art museums. For dinner, we roamed the shopping areas of Madrid until we found a hole-in-the-wall Falafel Bar. OK, not Spanish food... but the BEST falafel EVER! Afterward, we even happened upon an ice cream (Helados) stand that had sugar-free (sin azucar ) dark chocolate ice cream. Life is good!
Two TIPS for Today:
Disney makes sure there are bottles of water on every bus ride; snatch up a few for the parts of the day when the bus isn't nearby. It's very dry in Spain, and the body's need for water - especially after that long flight from the US - is greater than usual.
Spanish people are smaller than US folks in general even today. If you are going to shop for clothes, plan to go one or two sizes larger.
Day 3 The Enchanted Alacazar
After a buffet breakfast (of Tortilla and coffee for me; >) at the hotel, we boarded our luxury coach for a short drive through the Spanish countryside to Segovia where the Alcazar (aka castle) Walt Disney used as his inspiration for Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland resides. Yes, that's right... we are following in the footsteps of Walt:). The highways are well-tended, and -- except for the signage in Spanish -- we could have been traveling through the suburbs of any large city. Our local Adventures by Disney guide explained to us that, since the dictatorship fell in 1985, the country of Spain has been on the fast track to become technologically and commercially in sync with the International world.
Segovia is northwest of Madrid, and we were told to anticipate chilly temperatures as it is nestled in a mountain range. When we arrived, it was clear to see that parts of this small city of 50,000 had been around a LONG time. There was a mishmash of different styles on the face of the 'old city' buildings; combining Arabic, Roman, and Medieval stylings. Again, the roads were narrow and twisting with just enough room for one small car IF we hugged the walls -- which we did on occasion.
It was about a 20 minute walk (up and down) the cobblestone streets of Segovia to the Alcazar. This fortress/castle is smaller than the Royal Palace, but it is filled with history: Isybella was crowned queen here, married to Ferdinand here (both of them at age 16) which joined the then separate states of Spain into a united country, AND Christopher Columbus made one of his several pleas for financial support here. Wow! A history vortex, n'est-ce pas? Some of us climbed the very steep, circular stairway to the top of that tower, and we had the shaky legs for days to prove it; >) The view was priceless! My favorite aspect was seeing the Medieval town surrounded by a modern city. Priceless, I tell you. And you'll just have to take my word. This picture I 'borrowed' from Wikepedia.
Those of us with back and/or joint injuries were starting to slow down a little as we hiked back from the castle over the cobblestone streets. Hence my first TIP of the Day: If you have any kind of back or joint injury, come prepared. There is a great deal of walking on concrete and cobblestones during this Adventures By Disney tour.
The Adventures By Disney team put together an 'authentic' meal served to the king for our lunch.. Authentic is the key word. Basically, an entire suckling pig was roasted, brought to the table, and then the owner of the restaurant made a speech before taking a plate and ramming it into the roasted pig to show how tender it was. Then, he took the plate and threw it at the floor to break it, proving there wasn't in metal in the plate. The little pig was served in the pieces he carved with the plate. Alan got a little leg with a hoof on his plate, and one person got an ear. I was glad I was a vegetarian. The salad was very good, though. I asked the Adventures By Disney guides if they did this ceremony when there were children in the group, and they told me that kids get to go off and do a Children's Activity" during this meal. I wished two things: One -- that we'd had some kids in our group and, two -- that I had gone with them!
After lunch, we explored what I think should be one of the 7 Wonders of the World: the aqua duct
The Romans built it over 2000 years ago -- without ANY mortar -- and it still carries water today through the top of the structure. How amazing it is that!? Check out how big it is. And did I mention NO mortar of any kind. It was while we were sitting on a bench in rapt appreciation of the aqua duct that someone helped them self to the camera in our backpack on the bench next to us. Hence, my second TIP of the Day: If you're going to take your backpack off, hold it in your lap.
What a day filled with adventure, eh? Several of us napped on the way back to Madrid; a few of us napped when we returned. Again, the very hearty and brave headed out into Madrid to enjoy another art museum before our dinner together. All in all, it was an amazing day in all kinds of ways.
Day 4: Moorish Splendor
It's early in the morning; our bags are out in the hall to be picked up by the Adventures By Disney bus driver, the 'standby' camera we had packed away is charged and ready for action, and -- as you can see; >) -- I am ready to hit the road for Southern Spain. Madrid was interesting, but it's adventures we have in store that got me signed up for this trip. You may recall I made reference to the hotel room being small in Madrid. Check it out: That's it. No more, no less. It was very well appointed; we just spent alot of time on the bed.
This morning, we'll be climbing aboard a train from Madrid to Cordoba. We'll stop there for a tour of the Mezquita, have some lunch, then climb aboard a motorcoach for the rest of the way to Granada. Train travel is a new experience for me...
I am eager to experience it!
The interior is very similar to an airplane.. only more comfortable! We were given headsets and a movie in English with Spanish subtitles played for the duration of the trip. This is Alan's new preferred mode of travel. I watched the countryside roll by... reminiscent of California, I must say, though Spain is all over California when it comes to olive trees.
Off the train in Cordoba, our local expert met us at the station and rode with us to the Mezquita. The Mezquita started out as a Roman temple. Then, when the Moors swept through Spain and took control, they built a temple for Islam worship. Eventually, the Christian Spanish reclaimed the country, and they continued to add onto the Moorish temple, making it a Catholic cathedral. You can see how big it's gotten over time...
The outside looks like a fortress with an eclectic design, depending upon which era built it, but the inside is a garden. These Orange trees are hundreds of years old. and the harvest of their fruit for marmalade helps pay the cost of the temple. Next to the garden, is the second largest Islam temple ever built. These columns extend into forever, it seems.. When the people are called to prayer, they take a place in between the columns on the floor, facing Mecca, and pray. But, remember, the bells don't ring for Islam services anymore. This is the only place in the world where the Mosque bells ring for Mass..
The Catholic Spaniards built their cathedral right in the middle of the Mosque It really tickled my fancy how this one locations housed temples for whatever the presiding religious practice happened to be for over 2000 years, but here a couple of facts that are even more inspiring to me: When the Mosque was built by the invading Moors, they were so passionate in their faith, they built it in 10 months (Think about how long it takes to build something in our current society with all of the technology we have) How impressive is that?! AND historic evidence shows that all three religious groups, Jewish, Islam, and Christian, joined together to build it. I think that's pretty delightful, too. If it can happen once....
After touring the Mezquita proper, we headed into the side streets nearby to see some of the beautiful interior patio gardens this area is famous for, Again, the streets are... well, see for yourself: narrow. This is a famous postcard view of the Mezquita through the "Street of Flowers".
Lunch on our own. I admit it: Alan and I went searching for an "americanized" Spanish restaurant.. and we found it, too! I got the Spanish version of Chicken Tenders : and those French fry like sticks... those are Eggplant, and I LOVED them! Instead of ketchup, I got a little bowl of Salmorejo (a Spanish specialty) Alan chose a real Spanish entree:
Churrasco, a large piece of pork with Spanish sauces, one of them quite spicy
We found another Helado (ice cream) stand with sin azucar (sugar free) flavors so we were a couple of happy adventurers as we traipsed back onto the bus to complete our day's travel to Granada.
Day 5: Life in the Alhambra
We arrived at our hotel, Hotel Alhambra
with plenty of time to freshen up before dinner. The hotel is walking distance to The Alhambra, and the Moorish influence is evident.
Our room was spacious,
and I LOVED the bathroom!
The Dining room was very elegant, and the food here was our favorite of the trip. Rather than an African influence, it was decidedly French in style and presentation. This isn't one of the meals where I took pictures of every course, but I did want to show you just how delightful the salads are in Spain...
If we had kids in our group, tonight would have been Disney Movie Night. Sigghhhhh. Do they not know I am only traveling incognito in an adult body?! Anywho... back to our room to prepare for tomorrow's exploration of Alhambra. We had a great view of it from our window.
Bright and early, we met in hotel lobby to walk over to Alhambra. Walk is the operative term here. Again, it was uneven cobblestones for about 1/2 mile to the entrance. If you have any kind of joint or back consideration, walk slow and gently. I wish I had. There is nothing quite as distracting from the beauty of Moorish castle than back pain. First TIP of the day: Set your touring pace according to the wellbeing needs of your body. If you lose the group, the worst thing that will happen is that you'll find your way back to the hotel by yourself.
The Alhambra is a small city within a fortress-like wall.
We entered through this entrance.
Once inside, there were many buildings.. again some more recent and reflective of the Spain's Christian resurgence during the reign of Ferdinand and Isybella. For me, though, the most exquisite part of the Alhambra (Paradise on Earth) were the living quarters of the Moorish king and all his wives.
Because of the heat/culture, the royal family lived outside in the gardens much of the year, in the covered areas around the perimeter.
And their living areas were surrounded
by beautiful gardens as well
The gardens were extensive, and some of the group opted to continue exploring them while those of us ready to head back hiked -- some of us limping:P -- the half mile to the hotel. After lunch, the group went to explore the Arab Quarter; Alan and I opted to stay at the hotel and rest my back. Second TIP of the day: No tour is mandatory. The Adventures By Disney guides will support you to follow your personal 'bliss' and do their best to accommodate the schedule to personal desires.
Dinner tonight was truly an Adventures By Disney treat. We driven to a local (and very well known) Flamenco restaurant for a sampling of Flamenco very different than what we typically see in our culture.
More on that later... first,
dinner: Dinner was not the specialty of the house (That was reserved for the dancing later; >) Here is a sampling of what we were served. To accommodate my vegetarian diet, I was given Gazpacho while the rest of the group ate cold meats with bread as an appetizer.
This is a salad with some kind of fish on it. One of the things we learned in Spain is the question, "What kind of fish is it?" or "What kind of bird is it?" or "What kind of meat is it?" is often met with a blank stare.
They shrug and answer, "It is fish."
This was some kind of pork.
I had the grilled vegetable plate; and I knew what everything was; >)
Then came the dancing! In this style of Flamenco, the key is let the music move you. There is no pre-established choreography, and the best dancer appeared to be the one who 'feel' the passion of the music into a
frenzied state of movement
It was, of course, fascinating to watch! The musicians and dancers were oblivious to us for the most part, and fully 'entranced' by the music
It was a long day by the time we got back to the hotel; especially for those who did the afternoon tour. We found our way to bed and sweetie dreamies of tomorrow's trek to Sevilla.
Day 6: Andalucian Magic
We were on the road bright and early, making our way to final destination of our tour, Sevilla. The countryside rolled by, and those in our group who enjoyed the "Night Life" were catching a snooze. It was about a 3.5 hour drive... though if our driver went as fast as Americans drive, we would have been there in 1.5 hours, I think; >)
Before we checked into our hotel, we drove past Sevilla and into the countryside to a 5000 acre farm, Cortijo El Esparragal, that has been in existence since the mid 1600's.
They do everything here from train horses and people to ride the horses to raising cattle and doing special events like weddings and Adventures By Disney. For us, they were doing an authentic Spanish barbeque, a ceramic painting activity, and a ride around the estate. First though, we came to quiet courtyard and enjoyed some fresh squeezed orange juice
Then we moved to the dining room where the barbecue was set up "table side".
Of course, there was salad and Gazpacho to start. Alan said this was the best preparation of meat he had on the tour...
I know I really enjoyed my vegetarian entree. It was like a Tortilla with vegetables added in a Pesto sauce. After lunch, we toured the farm to check out different examples of hand-painted tiles. Then we found ourselves with our own set up to make some tile magic
This was supposed to be a Children's Activity, but I think I wasn't the only one in the group that wanted to play on the tour and made a point of saying so, and from here on we got to do all of the activities; >) And I was so happy! It turned out that the Children's Activities were the highlights of the trip for me. There were stencils or we could paint free hand. Alan went for the stencil...
and I painted free style.
I LOVED this activity! It was with a happy heart that I climbed back onto our motor coach (with my tile in hand; >) to head back to Sevilla and check into our hotel, Abba Triana. This hotel was quite beautiful.
An atrium lobby. What a WOW factor, eh?
Our room was quite spacious
from the other direction; >)
and the bathroom was very elegant
And check out this view! When Adventures By Disney says 4 star hotels, they mean it:) We were on our own for the rest of the day and evening. Some of the group headed over the bridge to sample Sevilla night life, but Alan and I were happy to relax and enjoy the view. We ate dinner at a buffet in the hotel prepared for our group. Here's what a Spanish salad bar looks like.. teehee
Day 7: Golden Sevilla
Ah, Sevilla! We began our tour of Sevilla walking through the Triana... the "Gypsy Quarters"
At one time, this was the home of all gypsies in Sevilla; now, it's a community with a decidedly artsy feel. Everywhere, there are hand
painted tiles and balconies overflowing flowers
We walked until we reached this landmark. This is all that is left of a fortress
that guarded the main thoroughfare into Europe during the Middle Ages. That's right: before there was Paris, there was Sevilla. It was Napoleon who swept through Spain about 700 years after Ferdinand and Isybella re-instated a Catholic Spain. Unlike the Moors who conquered, built, and remained; Napolean conquered, destroyed, and took whatever valuables he could back to France with him. This fortress was one of the casualties. If you go into the Triana market nearby, there are areas where you can see the ruins. I guess you could say, these spires mark the end of another Spanish era; >)
Today, the river has a much more relaxed feel than any major trade thoroughfare could.
Our Adventures By Disney "local expert" pointed out the city's logo that is written on many structures: No8Sevilla, and it means "Sevilla would not let me leave." He explained that the city was so beloved to Ferdinand, he coined this phrase. As the day progressed, I found I had to agree with the king.
We headed next to the 1927 World's Fairgrounds to see the Spanish Exhibition Hall. We were greeted by this fine fellow in the parking lot
There really is only one word to describe this Exhibition Hall: WOW! One thing I loved:
the blending of brick and ceramics. This beautiful use mixed media extends to each of the pavilions
Each pavilion represents a state of Spain.. the tile map in the center shows the location of the state and, above the pavilion, is the coat of arms for that state.
Here is a closeup of the hand painted tile
This gives new perspective to our tile-painting activity yesterday, n'est-ce pas?
From the exhibition hall, we drove over to the bull fighting ring. Originally, the use of bulls in this activity was used for training horses for the military. Today, of course, it is 'sport'. Our local expert told us there is controversy amongst the Spanish these days as to whether or not to maintain bull fighting as a sport of the country. Some say it is tradition; some say it no longer serves a purpose and is cruel. Several members of our group bought tickets to attend the fight later that day during our "free time." Alan and I didn't because I thought it wouldn't go over well that I would be cheering for the bull; >)
I happily left the ring for the next stage of our tour: Santa Cruz neighborhood. We entered through a lovely garden with yet another statue honoring Christopher Columbus
All I wanted to know was how did they get the lion to the top? Those palm trees are not dwarfs; >) Speaking of trees, this Ficus is over two centuries old; proving the city of Sevilla has history
The Santa Cruz neighborhood is one of the older areas of Sevilla, and -- again -- the streets are very narrow.
There are many interesting shops and structures to check out, but we were on a mission (staying together as a group:). Tip of the Day: Stay after everyone else leaves to go back to the hotel and continue exploring... or add a day on to the tour and return on your own. There is way more to do here than the tour can achieve; >) One thing we did accomplish, though, was the Tapas Trail. We sampled three different Tapas restaurants to get a 'flavor' (teehee) of this Spanish eating style. Here are a few examples of what we ordered:
Paella... get used to shrimp heads in Spain
Vegetarian: potato salad and grilled eggplant:
The Spanish version of Fish and Chips:
After lunch, some stayed and some headed back to the hotel. The remainder of the afternoon and evening was "free time". We knew we had an extra day after the tour to return so we chose to rest at the hotel. Not before finding Don Quixote, though
This fellow was all decked out in duct tape armor to amuse and delight the visitors.
Day 8: Viva la Feria!
Yay! I signed up for this Adventures By Disney tour for this day: We're traveling south to Jerez today to visit a world-renowned Andulucian horse farm, Yeguada Cartuja. I think our tour guides know they'll have to pull me out when it's time to go:P
First we visited the stallions. There were long rows of stallions as this is primarily a breeding farm, though they train and host shows. The stall door for this fine fellow was open, and he was eager to make friends
Such a gentle guy...
It is a credit to the people here that a stallion is so relaxed. While he and I shared a moment, Alan and he were exchanging salutations in their own unique styles
Next, we got to visit the mares and their babies. This baby was born last night... Mom is very protective.
This is as close as we came. The older babies were a different story. They were as curious about us as we were about them.
We had LOTS of fun here, and the Adventures By Disney tour guides did, indeed, have to pull me away from the babies. I could have spent the entire day there!
But we had another tour waiting for us at Tio Pepe where Spanish Sherry is made. We toured the grounds in a cute little train, getting out to see the various stages of the process.
Lots of casks everywhere we went!
...a glass end to show fermentation
At the end of the tour, everyone was given either a sample of Sherry or -- for us 'kids' in the group -- grape juice. It was yummy grape juice, too!
Then we were on our own for lunch in Jerez. Alan and I found a pleasant outdoor restaurant and discovered we'd learned enough about the culture to feel confident ordering from the menu. How cool is that?! It just goes to show, I guess, what a week of immersion in a culture can do for your international confidence; >) Alan chose the Paella
and I got my new favorite Spanish food, Salmorejo
We found another Helado stand with a sin azucar flavor, and our life was good:)
We had a little time to rest at the hotel before the Final Dinner. This is an Adventures By Disney "Finale Event". Everything is done with a flair, including the table settings.
The salad is, once again, beautiful
I had Potato Soup, while everyone else was served Seafood Paella (aka Octopus)
Tip for the Day: Unless you are truly a lover of octopus, eat 'vegetarian' for this meal. About half the table ended up with the vegetarian entree.
After dinner, we were surprised with another Flamenco show. These dancers were more polished and 'friendly'
They gave us a lesson in Flamenco and how to dance from the heart
It was truly a most delightful way to bring our Spanish adventure to a close... laughing and dancing together!
Day 9: Hasta Luego!
It's departure day. After breakfast, the Adventures By Disney tour guides helped everyone with their transfers and sent them on their way home, tired and happy...
Except for us... we stayed an extra day because of flight itineraries and were so glad we did. We took a taxi back to the Santa Cruz neighborhood and spent the day exploring on our own. We felt so independent and loved meandering through the narrow streets traipsing in and out of shops at our own pace:) What can I say? Sevilla would not let us leave; >)