Classes paused at the end of July for a one-month break. Many people went home, many traveled around the world…I stayed in Spain. But it was all for a good reason: I am saving money to visit home in December.
FYI – make sure to hover over the photos to view them all.
The first week I did go on a mini-vacation. I joined 3 Italians (Paolo, Stefano, and Alice – Stefano’s girlfriend) on a road trip through Spain and Portugal. We rented a car and luckily Stefano offered to drive because it was a manual which I cannot drive well. We had planned everything on a tight budget. We rented cheap apartments, cooked at home a lot, and didn’t spend too much on gas either. Here’s a little sneak peak of our route. The drive between each city was no more than 4 hours max (so close! for American standards).
Our first stop was Cáceres, Spain. Cáceres is on the western side of Spain, near the Portugal border. It was founded by Romans in 25 BC and, remarkably, the old city walls are still standing. In fact, the entire “old city” of Cáceres was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986. It was quite hot while we were there, but we managed to see all that we wanted: the old city, the famous “black” Jesus Christ made out of mahogany, a bakery run by nuns in a convent…well, we saw everything except for a stork. Cáceres is also famous for storks that migrate from Africa in the summer and nest on top of buildings. I saw quite a few nests, but never a stork. 😦
Our next stop was Lisbon, Portugal. Oh, Lisbon. It is so complex to describe. It is possibly one of the most beautiful cities that I have ever seen, but also the most run down. It is a dichotomy in itself, but that’s one of the reasons it is so charming. The tile, the architecture, the views, the people…all are quite beautiful. In fact, there’s a saying in Portuguese that compares Portuguese and Spanish men: “The men in Spain dress the best, but the men in Portugal look the best.” But there’s also cigarette butts, abandoned buildings, and occasional trash. But don’t let that scare you away from visiting!
We decided to park the car so that we didn’t have to deal with finding parking garages around the city. Then we took a quick train to the neighborhood of Belém to see the Jerónimos Monastery and Tropical Gardens, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to sample the famous pastry, pastéis de Belém. We needed to catch a bus and make our way back to the center to clean up and meet friends for dinner.
Walking into the center was really breathtaking. The cobblestone is smooth and shiny in the sun. Flags were still in the air, advertising the previous week’s sardine festival (Feast of Saint Anthony). Surprisingly, the surroundings of Lisbon seem a lot like San Francisco and I’m not just referring to the café culture. The main bridge is the sister bridge to the Golden Gate bridge (they look more or less the same), there are hills EVERYWHERE (side note – there are plenty of elevators to help you up all the hills, but we didn’t use them! – my calves were burning by day 2), there are trams, and the weather is pretty similar as well. And here we were, soaking it all in. I had visited Lisbon about ten years ago, but I barely remember that short trip. I was happy to be back, experiencing it as if it were my first time.
The next morning, we set out to visit the main sites: the Barrio Alto neighborhood, the Saint George Castle, the Santa Justa elevator, etc. In the afternoon, we took the car to Cascais which is a coastal town near Lisbon. It was too cold to swim, but we enjoyed the beach and view nonetheless. Plus, there were plenty of surfers and kites to keep us entertained.
After Lisbon, we headed to Sintra. It was BY FAR my favorite place in Portugal. It is the home of one of the national palace, castle, Sintra mountains, national park (full of vegetation from around the world), and very expensive estates of the rich and famous. We went to the palace first, then zip-lined through the park, down to the castle. I will let the pictures do the talking.
After Sintra, we headed to Algarve. I learned from Wikipedia that Algarve is Arabic (there’s a huge Moor/Arab influence in Spain and Portugal) for “The West” and Algarve is the southernmost region of Portugal. So, as you can imagine, this was the “beach” part of the vacation. We stayed in a condo on the beach for the entire weekend. Ahhh, how I miss it! I didn’t take many photos…I was busy swimming. 😉
After spending a few days in Algarve, we had the bright idea of going to Córdoba…probably the hottest city in Spain. Córdoba has a really interesting history that I suggest you read about because I am short on time and can’t include it all here. Some of the most incredible sights are the Mezquita (an Islmaic mosque from 785 A.D. turned into a Catholic cathedral in 1236), the Alcazar de los Reyes Católicos (a castle built in the gardens of the Arab fortress), the Roman bridge, the Jewish Quarters and synagogue, the Arab baths, the tiles, the trees, the beautiful patios. I could go on an on.
Lastly, we visited my favorite, Consuegra. I have wanted to see the molinos (windmills) in Consuegra for years, but it is not a convenient location for transportation purposes. Luckily, my three partners in crime were curious and we made it our mission to see it before returning to Madrid. If you’re familiar with the book, Don Quixote, you know that the molinos of La Mancha play an important role. And this is pretty much the only thing (other than saffron farms) in Consuegra. In fact, we couldn’t even find a restaurant that was in business. And to be honest, I was a bit nervous when we first arrived because I saw a lot of clouds. But by the time we made our way up the hill, the clouds had parted and I got some great photos. These photos are not adjusted in any way!
Needless to say, I had a wonderful vacation. I saw so many different areas of the Iberian peninsula that I had not seen before and for that I’m very thankful.