Travelling around central Spain Part 1

San Servando Castle in Toledo.

Toledo is an ancient city set on a hill above the plains of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain. It’s the capital of the region and is a favourite tourist destination known for the mix of medieval Arab, Jewish and Christian monuments within its walled city. A wonderful maze of narrow streets which takes on a magical feel when night falls.

Bell tower of the Santa Isabel church adjacent to our hotel.

Driving to our hotel was interesting as the streets got narrower and narrower. The receptionist had emphasised that our hire car must be a small one otherwise we wouldn’t get through …how right she was! Nevertheless we arrived without scraping any paintwork at Hotel Santa Isabel which was a perfect spot to stay being right in the heart of the walled city. The picture above was taken from the roof terrace and is the church of Saint Isabel. I love the golden evening light on the campanile. Of all the places we stayed during our week in Spain this hotel gave us the best breakfast and the room and service was very good too. We highly recommend this hotel.

Main picture is the view from our balcony and the two pictures of the cathedral were taken from the terrace of the hotel.

On our first evening we wandered towards the Jewish quarter and had a tasty meal washed down with a carafe of reasonably priced vino in a very modest ‘locals’ restaurant .

Day two in the city and unusually for us we decided to go on the tourist train to see more of Toledo. It saved us from getting the car out from the very tricky hotel car park and it was an easy and inexpensive way to see the sights. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and as well as passing some of the landmarks in the old town the train takes you along the river Tagus with views of several interesting bridges and then goes up to the Mirador del Valle.

Some of the views taken during our trip on the tourist train.

From the Mirador del Valle you look down on the Tagus river which encircles Toledo. From the viewpoint where the bus stops for about fifteen minutes to give people a chance to take pictures you can see Toledo’s landmarks …the Cathedral, the Jesuit Church and the Alcazar. This is a just an amazing panorama. I can imagine that if you’re up there at sunset it looks even more breathtaking. We were impressed with the trip on the train; it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. We sat at the back which in our opinion were the best seats.

Once back in the city, we had a wander round the area just below the Alcazar as I wanted to take this view which is the last one in the set above. I love the the three roads snaking across and the castle in the background. I thought we might visit the castle but apparently it’s a youth hostel and as for the old fortress of Alcazar, well we gave that a miss as its a military museum now. It is an imposing building with its high walls and black pinnacles (?) on each of the four corners. Having decided we wouldn’t do the museum we settled for a couple of beers sat in the sun at a cafe opposite the Alcazar.

Medieval gothic architecture and (some of) the painted walls and domed ceilings.

After a bite to eat we headed to one of Toldeo’s main attractions, Catedral Primada or to give it its full name, Santa Inglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo. Do check out the opening times before you go. There is an admission charge but its well worth it. This medieval gothic religious edifice is majestic. There are several chapels to visit, also the Treasury and the Capitulary room and anteroom and you can climb the tower that’s 44 metres high to get great views of the city. Leave plenty of time for your visit.

Main picture is of part of the cloisters, the side pictures are of the main chapel.

I know it’s a personal observation but for me the most impressive part of the Cathedral is the Main Chapel with its enormous altarpiece which was started in the early sixteenth century and has been worked on by many craftsmen since. The gilding, the colours, the statues and the height is an incredible backdrop to the main altar.

Narrow streets of cobbled stones.

On our way back to the hotel we spotted a restaurant just round the corner that also did tapas. Stupidly we didn’t think we needed to book as it was a Sunday evening but when we went back later we found out it was a popular place and was fully booked. We should have gone earlier as in Spain people tend not to go out to eat until at least 9 o’clock. However we’d enjoyed exploring the back streets and although the main streets were fairly quiet the shops were open. Not sure anyone was interested in buying a Toldeo sword for which the town is famous but the shop selling marzipan was still busy. Along with these rather gruesome-looking swords, Toledo is famous for its handmade marzipan.

Fortunately we’d been told about a tapas bar, El Trebol on the other side of the city which had a good write-up so we weren’t surprised when we arrived that we had to queue to get in. The wait wasn’t too long and it was worth it. We were first of all directed to the bar so no problem there. We were served a drink very quickly and given two small plates of delicious ‘taster’ tapas as an appetizer. Before long we were taken to our table, chose four meat dishes from the menu and had the tastiest tapas of the whole holiday.

Sites of Toledo including one of the bridges spanning the river Tagus.
Puenta de alcantata one of Toledo’s landmark bridges with El Alcazar in the background.

Before we left Toledo we decided to re-trace the route of the tourist train and drive alongside the river. Two days in the city isn’t long enough to do justice to this former Spanish capital. We had wandered around the Jewish quarter but didn’t visit the synagogue. We hadn’t been inside the Mezquita Cristo de la Luz, a square-shaped mosque in the ancient medina and we hadn’t been to the Monastery of San Juan and any other monasteries for that matter. However we felt we had walked around most of the old town and done all we could in a short space of time. We never intend on our holidays to race around and when we’ve left things to do and see, well we can always go back.

Now it was time to move on and head across country to Oropesa. More about this Spanish town and others in the next part of this Blog.

Three go to Lisbon Part 2

If you’re going to Lisbon a friend said, you must visit the Aquarium.

It’s probably something we wouldn’t have thought of doing but when we read about it and the fact it’s the largest indoor aquarium in Europe we decided to go.

The Lisbon Oceanarium
The Lisbon Oceanarium

We caught the underground train from Oriente (East) Station on the Red line and arrived in this very modern part of the city. It’s a redeveloped area by the Tagus River called the Parque das Nações, pictured top left. There’s lots of green spaces, famous Lisbon mosaics and striking contemporary buildings like the Camões Theatre and the Oceanarium. Nearby are trendy waterfront restaurants and the glass-roofed Centro Vasco da Gama, with shops and cinemas. Just walking to the Oceanarium was an experience in itself – a really interesting area.

Unless you have the right equipment, taking pictures of fish in tanks is never easy. Here is a selection which I have to say I was quite pleased with. Also, you know how after a while in these kind of places you start to get bored, well not here. It was brilliantly done and kept our interest going right to the cafeteria. That was the one let down …we should have gone elsewhere for our late lunch.

Oceanarium Lisbon.
Fish in an immense tank. Penguins fairly free to roam in their cold quarters.

My favourite picture is the one top right. It looks like the people are actually in the tank with the shark!

Did I mention that when we were in Lisbon the temperature got near to 30 degrees? It was pretty hot in the city when we got off the train so we decided to stop at one of the cafes in Rossio Square to have a reviving beer before heading up the hill towards the castle. I don’t know if you can make it out from the picture below, it’s the one top left, it’s of a large group of people waving flags and protesting. Actually it looked like thousands of people led along by the local youth choir! We were happy to sit in the sunshine enjoying our beer, eating a pasta de nata and listening to the music until the rally passed by.

If you’re wondering how the graffiti fits in to the picture below – there’s a short cut to the gateway by the castle which we used, we called it graffiti alley as all the walls there are covered.

Walking back from the station to our apartment, uphill all the way.

After our walk back and maybe because of the beer we all decided that we needed a siesta before visiting the castle that evening. In the summer it stays open until 9pm long after the tourist coaches have left. It was definitely the right time to go, not only because it was a beautiful evening but it was so much quieter wandering around than during the day.

Lisbon castle
The grounds of Castelo de S. Jorge complete with peacocks.
Castle in Lisbon evening views over the city.
Views from the Castle.
Sunset at Castello de S. Jorge, Lisbon
Sunset at Castello de S. Jorge

The light that evening was stunning and walking along the castle walls was just fabulous as it gave us good views over the city and down to the river. We left our friend to talk to the peacocks in the garden as she doesn’t do heights.

The picture below is my favourite of all the ones I took that evening. The buildings have turned golden in the late setting sun.

Evening light hitting the buildings in Lisbon.
Looking through to the city bathed in warm sunlight.

Day 5 and we’re off to the magical place called Sintra. It’s a short train journey from Rossio station to Sintra which is at the end of the line. The station is superb with it’s ornate exterior with two horseshoe-shaped archways. We didn’t have much time to appreciate the building though as there was no way we were going to miss this train!

I think most tourists to Lisbon take the time to go out to Sintra. One of the travel guides describes this World Heritage Site as a Portuguese gem; ‘a place full of magic and mystery with its rippling mountains, dewy forests exotic gardens, glittering palaces and ancient castles’. What it doesn’t say is that it’s teeming with tourists. Yes we were tourists too all heading off the train at Sintra to find the 434 tourist bus – it was chaos. There were touts selling guided tours, tuk-tuk drivers stopping you as you walked along and the lack of signs of where to catch the shuttle bus was really confusing.

We eventually found the bus stop and squeezed onto an already tightly packed bus. We had intended to get off at the stop for the Quinta da Regaleira which is a stone palace steeped in myth and legend with underground passages and grottoes and is surrounded in mystery – I was intrigued.. (A quinta by the way is a wine-producing estate). As it happened we could have walked there which as our non-communicative driver wasn’t stopping anywhere until we’d got to the Moorish Castle we should have done.

Moorish Castle in Sintra
Top picture is of an interesting set of steps we spotted on the way to Rossio station. The rest are pictures of the Moorish Castle.

This castle was built by the North African Moors between the 8th and the 11th century. To get the best views you need to climb up onto the battlements which of course we did. Our friend was quite happy to chat to other tourists who didn’t want to brave the heights. It’s a terrific viewpoint though and very blustery! You can see several other palaces including the Regaleira which we were still hoping to visit.

After walking around the battlements and weaving along the many paths through the gardens we carried on up to the amazing Palace of Pena. If you’re tight for time this is the palace to visit. It sits on the top one of the hills overlooking Sintra and is (apparently) the finest example in Europe of 19th century Romantic revivalism. The colours of this castle hit you straight away and surrounding all this is a large forest with hidden paths threading through it. Our ticket which we’d bought at the first stop after getting off the bus covered the palace interior and the terraces and the park.

Palacio da Pena
Palace of Pena and a view of the Moorish castle which had been our first stop.
Just some of the stunning features of Pena Palace.
Just some of the stunning features of Pena Palace. Clearly a Moroccan style of architecture in this courtyard.

The interior of the palace with its staterooms and chapel was just as interesting as the terraces. There were fewer people inside so it was easier to walk round unlike the perimeter of the castle terraces which was really busy. I guess you have to accept this when you’re visiting a major tourist attraction!

Features of the Palace of Pena
The Palace staterooms; the main archway into the palace and a view of the town from the Palace of Sintra.

By mid afternoon after doing lots of walk we were feeling pretty tired. We decided not to walk down to the palace of Quinta da Regaleira and hoped we could hop off the bus at the nearest stop.. Getting on the shuttle bus it was obvious that again the driver wasn’t stopping until we were back down to Sintra. Disappointed we headed to an outside bar, paid over the odds for a beer and thoroughly enjoyed it. We were sorry not to have done more but Sintra is not easy to work out. I’ve since read on a few web sites that these shuttle buses are a law unto themselves particularly in the high season. You can hire a tuk tuk but they’re not cheap and on top of that you have the entrance price for each palace. Don’t be put off though …the parks and palaces of the World Heritage site of Sintra are well worth a visit. Best avoided in the high season if you can and when it’s cooler – this is a hilly place.

I did think I’d finish this Blog on our week in Lisbon in two parts but there’s going to be a third. With a day and a half left when we visited the main cemetery in Lisbon, discovered Fado in the Alfama district of the city and visited magnificent Monastery of San Vincent de Fora I have more pictures to drop in and some more ramblings. For now I think this Blog is quite long enough! Hope you’ll stick around to read part 3.