Tenerife Towns

Last February, I walked all over La Laguna, La Orotava, and Santa Cruz, the capital, sort of urban trekking, if you will. La Laguna and La Orotava are little towns, both filled with colonial-era architecture and historic character. La Laguna is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its colonial buildings: homes, churches, public spaces. The mostly sixteenth to nineteenth century houses are generally a bit shabby by now, but they are still filled with memories of mariners stopping over during voyages from the Continent to points west and South.

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The famous Teatro Leal, below. La Laguna 2 (41)

The image below is of the Real Santuario del Santísimo Cristo de La Laguna, widely considered to be the holiest place in the islands because of the crucifix believed to be gifted from Seville in the sixteenth century.
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It also boasts perhaps the prettiest statue of Mary that exists anywhere, certainly the prettiest one I’ve seen.
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Orotava is also very photogenic, with the Atlantic Ocean as its backdrop.
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La Orotava (34) And interestingly, the little town has a morning bread delivery. Look closely at the photo above, then at the detail below. La Orotava (35)

My arrival in Tenerife conicided with the start of Carnaval. Good news for partiers, as Santa Cruz’s Carnaval is considered second only to Rio’s! I’m not much of a party animal, but I didn’t mind; I visited Santa Cruz on one of the quiet days, so I missed the craziness but got to see some of the color anyway — the best of both worlds!
Santa Cruz (31) Santa Cruz (9)Part of  the local color was especially colorful. Look closely; these are fellas in drag. They were dancing some mean salsa in those dresses, and one was singing his heart out.
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Santa Cruz is a beauty in her own right. A very modern port city with an auditorium to rival Sydney’s (well, almost), art and architectural treats galore, it’s a must-see.
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Below, see some examples of aforementioned art and architecture; it is an inspiring city, indeed.

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It also boasts a beautiful market. I wish I could share the smells from the herbalists there; those were intoxicating!
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Highly recommended, but if you go around Carnaval, it won’t be like summer. It will be comfortable, but not beach weather. Be aware, also, that Carnaval changes everything, especially in Santa Cruz. If you’re a big partier, you’ll love it. If you aren’t, maybe you should schedule your trip for another time.

By the way, if you read this post and COMMENT on it, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a box of BELGIAN CHOCOLATES. Thanks for reading!

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What is Amsterdam?

 

Amsterdam is…

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…bicycles!

Lots and lots of bicycles!

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Over 600 thousand bicycles, in fact!

Amsterdam is…

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…bicycles and canals!

Amsterdam is canals, and where there are canals, there must be boats.
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Amsterdam’s canals keep the city from flooding, so that its inhabitants can continue to ride their bicycles from their jobs to do their shopping and back to their homes in the distinctive houses we’ve come to recognize as distinctly Amsterdammer.
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Amsterdam is filled with color, from churches…33207982276_13a787761e_z_d
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…to cheeses!

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Amsterdam is old meets new.
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Amsterdam is BEER.

Unfortunately, I prefer Belgian…
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Practical advice:

Make your appointment for the Anne Frank House online ahead of time. Otherwise you’ll be standing in a line like this:
33094906182_955848c0cf_k_dAnd prepare to be moved in a way you might not expect as you walk through the rooms where she and her family hid out for two years, 1942 – 1944. The decorations she placed on the walls of the room she slept in are the only personal items left there. Otto Frank, the only surviving member of the family, insisted the rooms they lived in be displayed devoid of furnishings to represent the emptiness left when so many people captured by the Nazis did not return home.

More practical advice:

There are more museums than you can shake a stick at. You’ll never see them all, and probably you don’t want to. But the Van Gogh Museum is a don’t miss. So don’t miss it.
Most, including the aforementioned and the huge and famous Rijksmuseum, home to nearly a million works of mainly Dutch fine art, are located on or near the museum square, appropriately named Museumplein.

If you drive, park outside the city center and take a tram in. Parking is sparse. Trams are plentiful and fast. And driving in the center is like playing tag with people on bicycles. And the bicycles are also plentiful and fast.

There are a lot of choices of restaurants, especially if you are a meat-eater. There are more Argentinian steakhouses in Amsterdam than in Buenos Aires, I think. And there is usually at least one veg option on the menus of most restaurants.

Located two and a half hours by car north of Brussels, Amsterdam’s location invites visitors from all over the world. Will you be next?

By the way, if you read this post and COMMENT ON IT, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a free box of BELGIAN CHOCOLATES. Thanks for reading!

 

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More to Love about Belgium

If you’ve read my blog for the past few years, you know I like the little country where I live. Belgium has beautiful scenery, lively cities, cutting-edge cultural experiences, great beer, and top-notch chocolate. Brussels, the capital of Europe, hosts hundreds of events every year. Tour and Taxi is one of the companies responsible for some of those events. The company’s Chocolate Salon combines culture, beer, patisserie, and of course, chocolate for a stimulating weekend-long feast for the senses.

If you like chocolate, there’s plenty to taste and to buy. Chocolatiers come from all over Europe to participate. I bought at least a six-month supply of my favorite chocolate from Germany: Goufrais ! Delicious. Of course, the displays treat the eyes.
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But not to be outdone, the International College of Design created mini-works of art to challenge chocolate lovers and artists.

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And lest we forget that Paris is only three hours away… img_9220

For those budding pastry chefs among us, there is an all-day pastry-making exhibition. Very cool with the mirror hanging over the chefs to show us exactly what they are doing.

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But…the piece de resistance had to be the haute-couture chocolate fashion show. The dresses and outfits that waltzed down the runway were made at least in part (some in very large part) out of chocolate and were the results of collaboration between Belgian chocolatiers and couturiers. From elegant dresses to couture, it was a runway show to inspire lovers of fashion and chocolate connoisseurs alike!
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This model threw pralines out to the crowd. And who can resist little kids? Well, when they’re dressed in chocolate, anyway…
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Just like any other runway show, the chocolatier-partner in the design walked the runway with their creations at the end of the show.
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A lovely day to be had, as evidenced by the happy faces you see below. If you missed it this year, put it on your calendar for next!

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There’s nothing like a German Christmas Market!

Christmas markets the world over have one thing in common: they all wish they were German. And if they don’t, the rest of us do because German Christmas markets are the best.

I visited two markets yesterday, Aachen and Monschau. Very near Belgium but definitely German, they both are charming and fulfilling. My friend and I enjoyed delicious street food in Monschau, and Aachen’s cathedral was the highlight of the day.

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Monschau

Monschau is a picturesque little town by a river. They host one of my favorite markets because it is small and not too crowded, and it has a really fun little store for decorative items that really does Christmas decorations well. We also loved Aachen’s street food: kartoffelpuffers or potato latkes are my absolute favorite. Served with applesauce, they are a vegetarian’s dream, especially a vegetarian who happens to be from the US’s southern region, where fried = delectably delicious. My non-veg friend greatly enjoyed her bratwurst und brotchen, one of my former favorites. A fire-roasted pork sausage in a crusty roll, it is served with ketchup or mustard, your choice. I’m not a vegetarian because I don’t like the taste of meat; I’d have eaten one of those in a second if my personal ethics didn’t get in the way. The gluwein is also quite yummy.

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Aachen

Aachen is very different from Monschau but fairly typical of German markets. There are several market areas in the center, and the store windows are fabulous. Lots of street performers are out and about, from the typical human statues to a brass band and a man playing some sort of barrel organ. Street food is good, and so are the restaurants, when you can get a table. We had a tough time but ended up in a tapas bar that served a wonderful Spanish wine and some really good tapas! This year, because of the warmer temperatures, the streets were incredibly crowded, but the experience was worth it.

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Aachen Cathedral

No visit to Aachen is complete without a peek inside the most ancient cathedral in northern Europe. Aachen’s cathedral dates from the ninth century (that’s the 800’s, y’all!); actually it was begun in 790!  The Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle (officially named) is the home of several extremely important relics (the baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes!) and is the burial place of Charlemagne. Read more about that here if you are interested. The gold mosaics, much newer than the building itself, are spectacular and there are beautiful stained glass windows. And you can, for a mere two euros, climb a few stairs and get to see the throne of none-other-than Charlemagne! However the throne was more thoroughly used to crown the Holy Roman Emperors throughout the Middle Ages. But Charlemagne’s presence is everywhere here, including a statue of him outside.

Other great markets are cronicled here and here. Have a look-see when you have a minute to get to know some of the other markets, including Cologne’s and some of Brussels’.

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Practical Paris

Paris, the City of Light. Without equal in beauty and iconic symbols, visitors to this historic city find themselves agape at every turn.

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The view of Montmartre and Sacre Coeur from the Musée d’Orsay

But the difficult thing is finding a decent hotel, with parking and wifi, and in a neighborhood that is well-situated and feels relatively safe.

Gentle readers, I have good news for you. I found it.

In spite of the lovely fact that I live less than three hours from one of my favorite cities and I usually visit it for the day, returning home to my snuggly pets by bedtime, my pal and I spent three days overflowing with activities and two nights bundled up in comfy beds in one of the most sought-after quartiers in Paris, the Saint-Germain-des-Près, in an American hotel: the Holiday Inn (Saint-Germain-des-Près). We paid only 240 euros for two days and two beds, and with free wifi (doubly fast if you are a IHG member) and parking for 18 euros a day, it is a deal!

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Located a few steps, mere minutes from bus 92, metro stops Saint Placide and Rennes, the hotel has underground parking. Drive in, park, and don’t touch your car again until you leave. When you check out, feel free to leave your car there for the rest of the day, as the low 18 euro fee (most parking in Paris approaches or exceeds 30 euros) pays for the whole day, not just until you check out! Nice!

My friend and I enjoyed breakfast twice at the Trait d’Union, a little bar/café at the corner of Rue de Rennes and Rue Vaugirard, the street the hotel is on. At 3 euro 50, “le classic” provides a crunchy baguette with butter and jam and a coffee of your choice. Ask for milk and they bring it. Very friendly staff and a comfortable terrace if the weather permits. Across the street, a similar breakfast costs 9 euro 50! Seriously?

And what is Paris without a visit to the Louvre? Well, if you have been to Paris more than once and haven’t visited the most awe-inspiring museum in the world, shame on you! Did you know that 1) there is parking under the Louvre, but it is maybe the most expensive in the city at 50 euros for a 24 hour period and 2) the museum is open late, until 9:45 pm on both Wednedays and Fridays? Admission is 15 euros and worth every centime. The history of the building involves kings, queens, popes and revolutionaries dating all the way back to the 12th century. The collection includes peices from ancient Egypt to 20th Century USA, and from every continent. Fifteen euros? Really? I’d pay far more; I’m grateful for such a price.

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And lest we forget, at 12 euros, admission to the Musée d’Orsay is also a bargain! The former train station houses the most intriguing selection of impressionist, post-impressionist and symbolic art in the world. Don’t think you’ll see the building and its collection in part of a day; it will take at least the day. Lucky for you, there are three restaurants in the building! dscn1544-2

In spite of the fact that Orsay is just across the Seine from the Louvre, please don’t be tempted to see both in one day. You’ll be exhausted and forget what you’ve seen. The Musée d’Orsay deserves its very own day.

More to come on this lovely city. In the meantime, if you want to see more photos, please take a look at my most recent ones here .

 

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The City that Loves to Pee

When I talk about Belgium, I often call it “a quirky little country.” This is true for many reasons, and one of them is its fascination with peeing. At least in terms of Brussels, the capital. There are three statues dedicated to peeing beings. No kidding. Yesterday a friend and I did a Brussels Pee Tour (our own inventive name) and made the rounds of all three.

Undoubtedly, the most famous is Manneken Pis, the peeing boy. There are several legends behind the statue, the one I’ve heard most often retold is perhaps the one of a little boy who peed on the fuses of explosives set by an enemy, thereby thwarting the city’s destruction. In any event, the statue was, er, erected in the early 1600’s and it has become the symbol of the city. Sometimes he is wearing one of his numerous outfits that coordinate with holidays and seasons; around July 4, he is often wearing an Uncle Sam outfit. The clothes can be seen in the Maison du Roi on the Grand Place, but yesterday he was au naturel.

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Less famous, but no less odd, is Jeanneke Pis, the peeing girl. This statue was created in the 1980’s to counter manneken pis. She is often forgotten, as she is on a hard to find street, but if you are ever at the more famous Delirium Café, across from the front door, you will find Jeanneke unashamedly peeing away.

My favorite of the three statues, though, is the newest: Het Zinneke, the peeing dog. Het Zinneke is life-sized and determined-looking. He has been peeing on the post since 1998.  He was missing for a few months after he was hit by a car and had to be restored. He will let you pet him, but don’t expect him to stop his determined urination.

All three statues are within about a five or six minute walk from the Grand Place. Do your own Pee Tour, and post your photos in the comments! I’d love to see them!

 

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The Rain in Spain

“It will be our Thelma and Louise trip!” Angela exclaimed.

“With a different ending!” I added.

Spain, four cities, four days. We were planning, finally, our road trip in Spain, the one we’d been talking about doing for two years, the one we had to take NOW, because Angela was leaving to live in the US for at least two years.

Angela and I met when we were walking to an event in Mons (Belgium) with a few other friends in 2013. She and her family had just arrived. We discovered we have a lot in common: we both are from the Southern United States (Yeehaw!), we both speak Spanish (¡Arriba! ¡Vaya!), and we are both related to Daniel Boone (…was a man. A big man). We promptly began calling each other “cuz.” Unfortunately, we didn’t spend a lot of time together while she was here — Angela, having children and a husband, runs in different circles, as it were — until this school year, when she was hired to teach Spanish and ESL just down the hall from me. We have come to regret not making more time for each other because we enjoy each other’s company so much. Our professional vocabularies and philosophies and our family backgrounds are similar enough that we never run out of things to talk about.

In the spring, a rare four-day weekend was soon to be upon us. It was her last weekend free before her PCS date (military lingo for moving to another duty station). We had ZERO flexibility; it was that weekend or nothing. We decided much later than we should’ve because both our dogs were very sick all winter long. But in March, we decided it was now or never and we began planning.

First, the airline tickets. Found ’em, not too expensive considering we were getting them less than a month before departure, put in my credit card info, and the little circle on the screen just turned and turned and then wouldn’t accept. Tried again. Same result. Tried again the next day with no luck. Interestingly, the price of the tickets kept going up over these few days. Finally, I gave up. We discussed whether we should take it as a sign and decide the trip was not in the cards for us. Disappointed, Angela made one final attempt from her house, and SURPRISE! She managed to get the tickets, but by this time, they were two hundred euros more expensive than the first time! Okay, well, trip of a lifetime, bite the bullet, pay it. You who know me know that my Scot roots run really deep; hurts a little to pay more than a hundred euros to fly somewhere in Europe!

Angela began working on accommodations, too. I know, I know — why not me since she is the one who got the airline tickets?  Because I’m content with a private room and en suite bath in a hotel with wifi. I’ve stayed in 30 euro a night, clean but simple hotels in the centers of historic cities and been perfectly happy. Angela, like most of my friends, has higher standards than I. She found some beautiful hotels right in the centers of Seville, Granada and Toledo, walking distance to everything, with wifi. Not incredibly expensive but certainly nowhere near my usual happy place. Bye-bye, budget!

“You’ll never regret taking the trip,” our friend, Maureen said. “You’ll only regret NOT taking it.”

I sighed and agreed to pony up.

We checked the weather and it was already in the 80’s in sunny Spain. I was in charge of finding us a car. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, and I told Angela, “I’m going to try to rent a convertible! We can’t be Thelma and Louise without a convertible!”

“Woo hoo!!!” she whooped with a broad grin.

The first one I thought I had was this one: fiat_abarth_500c_296

Not terribly exciting but it seemed to be the only one available. Angela smiled enthusiastically. I could tell she wasn’t thrilled but it was better than a non-convertible! So I went ahead. But again my luck prevailed and the site would NOT complete the reservation. I tried and tried. I finally called the company and it turned out the car was not available.

I tried other sites. No luck. Finally, one day, about ten days before the trip, I decided to try again. EUREKA! I found a car. Boy, oh boy, did I find a car. (Insert long, low whistle here.)

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BMW, two-seater, more engine than seating by far. This was way more car than we needed with way less room for purchasing anything on the trip, but WOW. What a car. And what a price. EEEK!!! If I’d ever wanted a credit card purchase to fail, this would be it. But of course, this time, MAGIC. Rental goes through, and TA-DA! We are going to be driving all over Andalucia, top down, wind in our hair, laughing and singing our way through the sunshine and tapas! I won’t have any money but we will have a blast!

A few days before departure, Angela popped into my classroom. “Um, Cuz? Have you checked the weather lately? In Spain?”

I looked out the window at the clear skies and sunny Belgian day, one of the first warm days in weeks. “No, but last time I checked it was almost 90!”

“They’re saying it is going to rain the whole time. That the rain is going to follow us from Madrid, arrive in Seville the same day we do, and stay the whole time.”

I laughed. “No way!” I scoffed. “It NEVER rains in Andalucia. I’ll be surprised if it rains more than a tiny bit.”

Angela was not convinced. I, on the other hand, having been to Spain many times, had only seen it rain in Basque country, far north of where we were going. I was sure we would have mostly nice weather.

Departure day upon us, we packed our light rainwear just in case, along with our scarves, in order to do our very best Thelma and Louise imitations, and we headed south. Brussels Airlines was good if not great, better than Ryanair, of course, and we had an uneventful flight. Arriving in Madrid at nearly midnight, we spent the night in a nice hotel near the airport, arising early the next morning and reaching the airport’s car rental desk by nine. We noticed the skies were unusually cloudy, reminding us both of Belgium. We picked up the fabulous car and decided to leave the top closed.

For the entire drive to Cordoba, we watched the clouds. About forty-five minutes from Cordoba, we dared to put the top down for a bit. Five minutes later, it began to rain, just a little. Angela suggested we stop and replace the top, but I said, “not yet — the rain is going OVER the car and we aren’t getting wet yet!” Angela looked at her jacket and the dash; I was right! We managed to use the convertible for ten minutes that first day. Here’s proof:

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In spite of the weather, we enjoyed the Mezquita in Cordoba, oohing and ahhing our way through the columns and contrasts. A cathedral created out of a mosque, this paradoxical structure amazed us both this time as much as it had the first, when we had visited it about a year apart in the nineties, both of us traveling from the US with high school students. Mezquita.jpeg

And of course, Cordoba herself was as beautiful as always. Filled with flowers and artsy shops, this little city shines, even in the occasional drizzle.
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We didn’t spend the night in Cordoba; our goal for the day was Seville, that gem of Andalucia, and her soaring cathedral. We drove the short distance in a light sprinkle and arrived literally seconds before the apartment rental company, with whom we had our reservation, was to close their doors at 8:30 p.m. We tried with all our might to drive to the place with no luck; we just needed to check in and get the key! Angela began to panic. I jumped out of the car and frantically wound my way through the tiny streets in the city’s center until FINALLY I was on the right street. My sense of direction is not so great, so it’s a minor miracle that I made it, but alas, I got the key in my grubby little hand and somehow found my way back to the beamer. I realized, as I placed my bottom on the leather seat that I was dry; no rain since we arrived in the city center.

That evening, fancy car a kilometer away in a covered carpark, we dined on patatas bravas and chickpeas with spinach (cooked in bacon grease, I am pretty certain — y’all know I’m a vegetarian, right?) and way too much really good wine, in the shadow of Seville’s famous cathedral and just a few steps from our apartment. We walked around the landmark (by now it was raining again) before turning in for the night. The next morning, under clouds but no raindrops, we got in line and waited our turns to go in and pay our respects to Christopher Columbus (entombed inside the enormous cathedral) and get lost trying to find the painting of Saint Anthony, named for Angela’s husband. Or maybe it was the other way around, not sure.

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The tomb of Christopher Columbus, and Angela with Saint Anthony

We walked that afternoon to the Plaza de España, built in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition. Angela’s favorite city, Seville did not disappoint. Except for the rain at the Plaza de España and walking back to the car…that was a little disappointing. Thankfully it was only a light rain.

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Seville’s cathedral, her famous tower, and the Plaza de España

We pulled out of Seville that afternoon bearing east, sights set on Granada, a city that has my heart, for so many reasons. The rain accompanied us the whole way. Until we arrived in Granada. As soon as we got off the highway, the rain stopped. It was almost sunny. Almost. And another chance to feel the wind in our hair was past.

Again, we parked a bit of a hike away from the hotel, as it is in the Albayzin, a mostly pedestrian area, steps away from the Plaza Nueva and a short walk to the Alhambra. We checked into the old and elegant building, had a snack and walked up the Darro. We made it all the way up to Mirador Saint Nicolas, stopped into a little restaurant with a view of the Alhambra, and dined on eggplant fried crispy and served with molasses. Watching day turn to night and the lights come on the ancient Moorish fortress gave us both goosebumps. I think I’ve rarely enjoyed an evening more than that one. And JOY! Still no rain!

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The next day dawned cool but not rainy, and we had a guided tour scheduled for the Alhambra. We managed to walk about seven kilometers that day, most of them within the Alhambra grounds. So many beautiful photos! Too many to post. Please enjoy them by clicking here.

Later that day, we savored what I think was our best meal of the trip: more of the aforementioned eggplant (apparently a local dish) and a salad that was beyond belief. Baby romaine lettuce, walnuts, fried garlic slices and warm olive oil dressing. So delicious!  I highly recommend the restaurant, Los Manueles, located just off the Plaza Nueva. Not to be missed, this one. By the time we headed towards the car, it had begun to rain. Again.

Toledo is quite a distance away from southerly Granada in Castilla La Mancha. Most of the way it rained, but it was to be our last opportunity to put the top down on that gorgeous machine. I was driving this time and was DETERMINED to get SOME enjoyment out of that very expensive rental. It let up for a while in the afternoon, and Angela, dubious and cold, reluctantly agreed. This time, it was cool enough that we had to turn on the heat. She shivered the entire time but took a couple of photos anyway.

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We began  to be rained on in earnest within about ten minutes, so we hastily pulled over and put the top back up. I must admit, as fun as it was to drive that car, it was certainly more comfortable with the top closed. It wasn’t more than 60 degrees. Interesting how it rained on us every time we got in the car and let up every time we arrived at our destination. Alas, our luck was about to really run out.

In Toledo, we again were in the center of the historic district. We managed to shop for our knives and enjoy another wonderful meal. The next morning, Sunday, we tried to see the cathedral but they wouldn’t let us in; they were celebrating mass and no tourists were allowed inside. We were too late to go in with the worshipers, so we wandered around a bit and soon found ourselves in a heavy downpour, the likes of which I never imagined in Spain. We managed to get ourselves a little lost and quite a long way from the hotel in the relentless rain, and we resigned ourselves to seeing very little of what we had hoped to see in Toledo. We arrived back at the hotel ten minutes after checkout time and I turned on my charm and Castillian accent (as much as any American can) and the hotelier didn’t charge us extra for our late checkout. Earlier than planned, we left for Barajas airport in Madrid, our clothes soaking wet and our hair a limp mess. Angela took off her shoes to try to dry out her feet and drove barefoot.

By the time we got there and turned in the car, our spirits were a bit better and our clothes had mostly dried out. We checked our luggage and had some tapas and a caña, and reminisced about the preceding days. Our trip of a lifetime turned out a little soggy, but our friendship was stronger than ever and the memories we made were full of laughter, history and delicious food. Turns out the rain in Spain may well fall mainly on the plain, but it can’t dampen the spirits of good friends. Familiar companionship outshines the rain any day.

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