Spain & Portugal Offer Vibrant Culture, Tasty Cuisine

Lynn and Roger Gee, 7-time travelers from San Diego, California, shared their story and photos from their recent Spain & Portugal in Depth trip, which they said was one of “the best” Grand Circle tours they’ve traveled on.

Our first day
We arrived at our hotel and took a short nap to rest up for lunch near the Opera House. Lynn and I saw Spain’s king, Juan Carlos, in full military regalia sitting outside one of the restaurants. The other men at his table were ambassadors. We felt that our president would be a tempting target if he were to sit in the open like that.

Later we met our fellow travelers for a drink and went for a walk guided by our Program Director, Juan Vazquez. Our friends came by our hotel later to introduce us to tapas, and explained to us that the word tapa means a lid on a glass jar. Appetizers are called tapas because the small slices of bread on which goodies are placed look like lids. We started with thin ham slices from Iberian pigs that are fed acorns. We liked the flavor, but we especially loved the tapas with salmon slices and crab salad on top.

We enjoyed our first taste of authentic Spanish tapas.

Our first stop on our city tour the next day was the Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple rebuilt in the Parque del Oeste. The reflecting pool represented the Nile River. The Egyptian government donated this temple as a sign of gratitude for the help provided by Spain in saving the temples of Abu Simbel.

The reflecting pool in front of the Temple of Debod in Madrid represents the Nile River.

Next, our group visited a park dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. The olive trees in the park came from the province of La Mancha.

We moved on to the Plaza de Oriente, across from the Palacio Real (our local guide told us that Juan Carlos rarely uses this Royal Palace). Our bus passed by the Alcala Gate, which was not part of the original city wall. We liked seeing the statues of Christopher Columbus and Neptune on our way to the Prado Art Museum.

Later, we walked on our own and visited the Cathedral de la Almudena Recuerdos where I took a photo of Lynn with her favorite pope, John Paul II. We walked on to the Plaza Major to take some photographs, before our Welcome Dinner.

An enriching optional tour

As we journeyed on toward Toledo, we took the optional tour to El Escorial, one of Spain’s most visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This residence of King Philip II functioned as a monastery, palace, museum, and school, and was built on a played-out quarry. We walked down many stairs to see the royal crypt for the dead kings and queens. It was an amazing tomb decorated with beautiful marble and gold leaf.

Our friend stopped by our hotel later for a walk to the Parque del Buen Retiro (Respite Park). It reminded us of Central Park in New York City. We saw many people walking or jogging in the early evening. I got photos of row boats in the center basin and leaves on trees showing autumn colors. What a great walk! We took a local bus to an 8:30 dinner (early by Madrid standards), and took the subway back to the Opera House station near our hotel.

Exploring the roots of Don Quixote in Toledo

Juan told us that several towns in La Mancha claim to be the birthplace of the fictional character Don Quixote. We stopped by one before arriving in Toledo, where I took photos of this romantic dreamer who imagined being a knight.

We stopped at one of the many fictional birthplaces of Don Quixote in La Mancha.

We stopped by a hill overlooking Toledo and took photographs. The Iberians inhabited this peninsula at about 2000 BC. When the Romans captured it in 192 BC, they called it España, which meant the land of rabbits. The Moors took over in 712 AD. The Moors, Jews, and Mozárabes (Christians subject to Moorish rule) lived together in relative equality during a golden age of prosperity. In the 16th century, the capital was moved to Madrid. Later the Spanish Inquisition (mass expulsion of Jews and Muslims) took place. Toledo is now 99% Roman Catholic.

Córdoba: Spain's Roman heritage

Córdoba was established in 200 BC by the Romans. It was once the largest city in Roman Spain and for three centuries it formed the heart of the western Islamic empire. Today the town is known for tourism and olive oil production.

Our plan today was to see Mezquita, one of the most beautiful mosques ever constructed by the Moors in Spain. Our first stop was at a view point on the left bank of the river. The weather was perfect for great photos of the Mezquita. The red-and-white striped arches here were rounded instead of pointed as in the more plain Gothic style. We learned that the arches were designed in the Caliphte style. We felt like we were entering a bazaar in Istanbul.

In the afternoon, Juan took us on a tour of a local mercado (supermarket). We purchased dinner for three for only 5.29 euros. We shared dinner with our friend, Thelma, on the roof of the hotel. She accompanied us to the Espectáculo Ecuestre (an Andalusian horse show) at the Royal Stables. We were impressed by the flamenco dancing, and the horses’ military drills, such as kicking and rearing up using their back legs.

On the road to Granada

We drove past fields of grain and massive orchards of olive trees and learned that olives are technically fruits. The best olives come from trees that are between 15 and 90 years old.

In Granada, we went to The Alhambra which is defined as the red fortress. The reddish-brown appearance came from the ceramic clay used in the construction. While most of The Alhambra was built by the Moors, the first building we entered had no Muslim decorations. Emperor Carlos (Charles) V, grandson of Fernando and Isabella, demolished a wing of rooms to make a Renaissance palace that was never completed. The architect died before the proposed dome was started. It was to be the only palace with a square outside and round inside. Muslim rulers added sections with a “paradise on Earth” theme.

African adventure

Our Program Director called today’s optional tour the “African Adventure.” For the two of us it was a chance to set foot on a new continent. After this, we have only Antarctica to visit!

One of the stops on our tour of the city was a place to ride a camel. Lynn and several other members of our group took a one-euro camel ride.

Camel ride in Tangier

We were surprised at the opportunities for women in this Muslim country. There are more female students attending the local universities than male. No job is forbidden to women. Arranged marriages still exist, but more so in the countryside. The Moroccan cuisine, much of it from a central dish, was delicious.

A place “only a local could know about”

Three famous people were born in Malaga—Pablo Picasso, Antonio Banderas, and Juan, our Program Director. One stop on our tour was the neighborhood where Picasso was born.

We walked into a building that only a local could know about. The building contained two floats used by one of the Catholic fraternities in town. The silver float was so heavy that it took 220 men to carry it in the procession every Good Friday.

We walked on to see Málaga’s unfinished cathedral. It still lacks a tower on the west front because a bishop donated the earmarked money to the American War of Independence against the British. That was more than 200 years ago!

We then boarded our bus for Salinas and a Home-Hosted Lunch. Salinas is a village of 700 people. The lunch was excellent. Our host communicated pretty well even though she spoke no English and we spoke very little Spanish.

“Surrounded by mountains”

We saw some wind turbine farms on the way to Ronda (which literally means “surrounded by mountains”). Don Quixote would have been overwhelmed by these modern windmills. We saw lots of white-washed houses with terra cotta tile roofs. We saw a castle (with walls for protection) and a church in each town. Juan told us that there are more than 2,000 castles in Spain.

The many houses with terra cotta roofs in La Mancha reminded us of our neighborhood in San Diego.

At our first stop, we learned how the Iberian ham is cured. It is not smoked, as it is in the U.S.; the drying process takes 2-3 years. A leg of this ham costs upwards of 2,000 euros.

Lynn and I learned how the really expensive Iberian ham is cured in Ronda.

After a wonderful few hours, we traveled to Seville. We checked into a fancy hotel before checking out a local mercado (grocery store). I just had to photograph the large bottles of olive oil. We were beginning to understand that olive oil is used for all kinds of cooking in Spain.

Our first stop on our Seville tour was to meet the white pigeons. Nearby was one of the most beautiful pavilions that we had seen, built using Moorish and Gothic architecture.

We passed by the Golden Tower. They used to put up a chain between the Golden and Silver towers to close the port at night. We also stopped by the Macarena Church, where we learned that the dance used at weddings was originated in this neighborhood.

We walked through the Jewish Quarter, Seville’s old town, to get to the cathedral, where we saw the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

Later we enjoyed dinner and a flamenco show, where one of the dancers showed and explained her costumes, shoes, and equipment. This special discovery helped us understand the flamenco and classical dances better.

Flamenco is one of the most-recognized arts of Spain.

Making memories in Portugal

Lunch at the horse-breeding ranch we visited was interesting. We learned that the family breeds Lusitanian horses that are used for dressage and bullfighting. They also have 100 cows and grow several different kinds of crops.

On the way to Lisbon, we learned that Portugal has the largest cork tree forest in the world. It is the main producer of cork. Cork is used for more than wine bottle stoppers. It is also used for umbrellas, handbags and postcards. Cork trees grow best in Portugal because of the cooler air coming off the Atlantic Ocean.

In Vale, Santiago we were surprised about how thick the bark off a cork tree is.

We saw many things in Lisbon: the Belém section of town, where the ships brought spices and other riches into Lisbon, where I photographed the Monument to the Discoveries.

The Monument to the Discoveries in Lisbon looks like a caravel sailing ship with Henry the navigator, on the prow. He wasn’t really a navigator—his talent was finding good navigators and cartographers.

We enjoyed the horse coach museum before stopping at Jerónimos Monastery, another UNESCO site. Juan shared a great treat with us from the Pastéis de Belém. The crust tasted like baklava. The filling was like crème brule. It was excellent!

Our final day

We both woke up excited on our final morning—it was the day that we were going to see the beautiful Portuguese beaches that go along the Atlantic Ocean.

We stopped in Cascais for some good photos around the fishing harbor. This town felt a bit like La Jolla, California. We next stopped for a view of Cape Roca, the most western point in continental Europe. It was where the Sintra Mountain Range met the Atlantic Ocean.

This image of Cape Roca is one of Roger's favorite from the whole trip.

Our next stop was in Sintra where the summer palace was for the kings of Portugal and the Moorish lords of Lisbon before them. We were warned that there were more than 100 steps to go up and down in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We did not chicken out.

Outside the castle we sampled local pastries called travesseiros. We purchased one which was not so good. We then ate one that Juan purchased from the best pastry shop in Sintra. His was much better.

Tonight, we attended a cocktail party at the hotel bar followed by dinner. This was one of our best Grand Circle tours—thanks in part to our guide Juan, who was outstanding!

Our Program Director, Juan, center, was one of the favorites we’ve ever had with Grand Circle.

If you’d like to learn more about this adventure from our travelers, check out this video featuring Grand Circle Cruise Line travelers like Deby describing—in their own words—what made their experiences in Spain and Portugal so memorable.