November 20, 2013

A Visit to "The Rock" and Then Some R&R in Rota

“Perhaps we need to start thinking about creating a charge of 50€ to enter Gibraltar and 50 to leave.”  José Garcia-Margallo, Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation

Carol writes:  For several days Al and I debated whether it would be worth the hassle to attempt to visit Gibraltar, a British possession which therefore would require an international border crossing.  We had read that the border between Spain and Gibraltar could have unwanted traffic congestion, something we try to avoid, if possible, since we are 23 feet long.  Nonetheless, we had another gorgeous sunny day and so we decided to drive as close as we could to the Rock of Gibraltar so we could at least take a look.   In Cordoba, a fellow camper had told us about a large parking area near the border crossing, and he also said that camping overnight was allowed there.  Was this too good to be true? 

Sometimes the stars align perfectly and the solution to a question falls right into your lap, and that is what happened to us.  We easily found the large parking area within walking distance of the border.  The parking lot was part of a marina area and was huge, clean, safe, relatively deserted, and had a knockout view of the Rock! 

 

We were told it was permissible to spend the night there in our RV.  The border was only a 10-minute stroll, and so we set off.  Passing through customs control was a breeze.  We even had to ask British customs to stamp our passports, and they courteously obliged us.  We like to have a stamp every now and then to document our travels dates to prove our compliance with Schengen rules.  More about that later…

The walk into Gibraltar was a strange one at the start.  Both the auto route and the pedestrian walking path bisected the airport runway into Gibraltar’s air terminal!  I’m not quite sure what the procedure would be to clear the runway of people and cars if a plane was approaching for a landing.


One of Gibraltar’s more interesting sights, besides its impressive ‘Rock’, is the fact that the area is home to a Barbary monkey population.  The monkeys have free reign of ‘The Rock’ and the town and serve to either delight or pester the tourists, depending on whether they are posing for an adorable camera shot or, alternatively, biting you and/or stealing the bag you are carrying in hopes it contains some goodies to eat.  It wasn’t long before we encountered a “monkey jam.”

 

But…more monkey shots later.

By the time we arrived at the foot of the cable cars that serve as transportation to the Top of the Rock (the REAL ROCK, not NBC’s home on Rockefeller Square), we knew we had to spring for the pricey ride to the top.  Took all of 6 minutes to get to the top.  We were astounded at the 360-degree views,


looking down on Gibraltar and the harbor area,


back at the tip of the Rock itself,


and across the Strait of Gibraltar for a view into Morocco’s mountains on the dark African continent.


Of course, the monkeys at the top provided great photo opportunities, especially this incredibly photogenic mother and baby.


Everyone gets their own monkey shot…

 

We wanted to linger as long as possible at the top because we just couldn’t get enough of the views.  We lingered over coffee/beer at the café up top, gazing through the floor-length windows into the calm blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea and watching the monkeys play.  We both agreed that the Top of the Rock at Gibraltar ranked near the very top of our European RV adventure, and to think that we almost didn’t make the Gibraltar side trip…

Our evening back in the RV at our premier camping spot at the marina was quite spectacular at sunset.


Then, at daybreak the next morning, we looked out the window and saw a dazzling full moon about to set.  Doesn’t get any better than that!

NAVAL AIR STATION IN ROTA, SPAIN:  The next step in our game plan was to head to the Naval Air Station at Rota, Spain, about a 2-hour drive from Gibraltar.  We were anxious to take advantage of the spacious room (with a small kitchen) that we had booked for a few days of rest, relaxation, catching up on household chores, and planning for the next two months.  A real bed and a Broncos game on Armed Forces Network TV tend to go a long way toward refreshing our minds and bodies.

Our dilemma on how to proceed with the next few months of travels in Europe boils down to a calendar issue.  Winter is approaching, even in sunny Spain.  In addition, in order to remain compliant with Schengen rules, we are allowed to stay in the Schengen countries, which include most of the 26 countries in Western Europe, only 90 days out of every 180 days.  We spent our first 90 days in Western Europe in the Schengen countries during the first three months of our European adventure (mid-April to mid-July).  Then, we left the Schengen area for 90 days in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (mid-July to mid-October).  We have been back in Schengen for the past 5 weeks (since mid-October) and are faced with leaving for another 90 days by January 11th.  Where to go?  Morocco and Turkey are our only viable options, and Turkey is a long, long drive from Spain.  Neither country would seem to have enough to keep us occupied for 90 days, not to mention safety issues.  This is the dilemma we have been facing for the past 8 months, but we have now reached decision time because winter is fast approaching and we must leave the Schengen area in 7 weeks.

So…we have decided for many, many reasons that it is time to think about shipping the RV home and catching a Space-Available flight back to the States with the US Air Force in Ramstein, Germany.  With use of all the handy technology on the naval base here in Rota (i.e., Internet, faxing, and library facilities), we have booked a December 13th sailing date for our RV out of…Amsterdam…same place where we picked it up last April.  We are satisfied with our game plan.  We have admitted to each other that we are getting tired after the nonstop pace we have been keeping since we left Colorado in March.  We have experienced the thrill of many lifetimes with our travel adventures, and it is time to start closing out this European chapter.

By the time we get back to our home in Colorado, we will have been gone for almost a year.  Many practical and mundane issues that have no easy solutions cannot be ignored beyond a year--healthcare, dental care, prescriptions, taxes, mail, vehicle license renewals, RV servicing issues.  You get the idea…

After a few more days of rest here in Rota, we will head over to check out the Algarve in southern Portugal and then head north by a long route to Amsterdam to drop off the RV for shipping.  In the meantime, we have a lot to see, countless unknown adventures ahead, and many miles to travel back to Colorado.  Stay tuned for more blog posts…

“Neither the incursions of Moor, the Spaniards nor the English, nor cannon nor bomb of either have been able to dislodge them.”  Ignacio López de Ayala, writing about the monkeys of Gibraltar in his “History of Gibraltar” (1782)

 

Moorish Medieval Marvels

“Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.”  Christopher Columbus

Carol writes: 
CORDOBA:  So far our travels throughout Western Europe had taken us from one splendid cathedral/basilica to another.  Most of these churches have been airy Gothic marvels with incredibly high vaulted ceilings and wondrous stained glass windows.  In Spain we were looking forward to seeing a very different architectural style dating from the era of Islamic medieval Spain.  The city of Cordoba was the capital and crown jewel of Arabic Andalusia, the region in southern Spain where the culture of the Arabs met the great western thinkers of the day.  Aristotle was widely read and much admired by Cordoba’s Islamic thinkers.  For a time, Christianity and Islam actually existed peacefully side-by-side until the activism of the Crusades began. 

Our first destination for the day in Cordoba was the medieval wonder of ‘The Mezquita’—Islamic Cordoba in prime-time condition.   The Mezquita complex was the location of a massive former mosque that subsequently had a 16th century Christian church built right in the middle of it.  The Mezquita walking tour began in a pleasant courtyard.

 

As soon as we entered the dimly lighted area of the former mosque, we were dazzled by a repeating display of red and white striped arches.


The most sacred area of the mosque was the mihrab, not much more than a little niche-like area where the prayer leader would stand to read scripture or give a sermon.


Since Islamic art forbids the use of the human form, all of the artistic decoration in the mosque section was abstract design.  Many of these fascinated my quilter’s eye, especially the ones with continuous line designs.  Some of these may become inspirations for future quilting projects.

 

On entering the cathedral area of the mosque, we were suddenly thrust into an entirely different ecclesiastical world.


Exiting ‘The Meziquita’ brought us back out into a brilliant sunny day.  We were fortunate to get one of our rare twosome pics on Cordoba’s ancient Roman bridge.  It was heavenly to have a day in which we could get by in short sleeves and no jackets!


We savored the rest of our day with a stroll through the narrow streets of Cordoba,

first through the Jewish Quarter, where we paused to admire the statue of Maimonides, who lived in Cordoba and was one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time.


We had a quick peek into an ancient Jewish synagogue,
then finished off our day with a little sangria


at an outdoor café just inside the ancient city walls of Cordoba.


GRANADA:  Perhaps the grandest expression of the Moorish kingdom in Spain is found in the foothills of Granada at Alhambra, the greatest Moorish palace in all of Europe.  We spent the first day in Granada doing a “get familiar with the lay of the land” walk.  We passed through an area that once was a Moorish silk market but now was host to numerous colorful vendor stalls selling all the popular trinkets of the day.


We visited the ‘Royal Chapel’ where we gave a nod of thanks before the grandiose Carrara marble tomb display of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who were the Spanish king and queen who financed the voyage of Christopher Columbus.  What was most unusual was the viewing of the simple, unadorned coffins of Ferdinand and Isabella, just beneath the lavish tomb display.

To visit Alhambra the next day, we had to jump through a few hoops to reserve a timed entry, but our campground host offered to do the reservation online for us, plus order a taxi to take us directly up the hill to Alhambra the next morning, so the planning of our visit was greatly simplified.

The entire Alhambra complex was composed of four venues:  The Gardens, the unfinished Palace of Charles V, the fort, and the royal palace itself (the Palacios Nazaries).  Since we had an early afternoon timed visit for the palace, in the morning we started our visit to Alhambra in the lovely palace gardens, where it was impossible to take a bad picture.


We visited the unfinished palace of Charles V,


then continued on to the fort complex, where we got the most eye-popping views of Granada below and, in another direction, a snowcapped peak in the distance!

 

Our last venue for the day was the Alhambra palace itself—what we had been waiting all day to see…

How to describe Alhambra?  For starters, it was a glorious feast for the eyes.  It seemed like every square inch of the walls, floors and ceilings were decorated with either tiles, stucco, carved wood, or molded plaster.  In keeping with Islamic beliefs, all designs were abstract and did not reflect any human forms.

 

From an historical perspective, the largest room (the Grand Hall) held a unique fascination because that was the very room where Christopher Columbus made his request to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to finance his voyage to the Orient.

The Courtyard of the Lions was even more interesting to me when I learned that the circular fountain of 12 lions once functioned as a clock with a different lion spouting water each hour.  How clever!


The laciness of the stalactite-type plaster ceilings was hard to capture with a camera lens.


Finally, the best view of Granada from the palace was from the balcony off the room where Washington Irving stayed in 1829 and wrote “Tales of the Alhambra.”


We were quite thrilled with our visits to both Cordoba and Granada, with their captivating Moorish ambience.   In our drive throughout all of Andalusia, the beauty of the sparkling white hill towns was breathtaking.  However, those snow-dusted peaks that we saw in the distance from ‘The Alhambra’ reminded us that Fall was making its relentless march into Winter.  Our plan to keep winter at bay as long as possible meant that our driving route the next day would be directly south to Spain’s famous fun-in-the-sun coast called the Costa del Sol.  We wondered if the endless high-rise condo sprawl on the Costa del Sol would be as bad as we had read.  We also debated with ourselves if we should make the effort to negotiate a day trip into Gibraltar…

“Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”  Said by mother of last Moorish king as he fled Alhambra

 

 

 

November 18, 2013

The Great Cities of Spain

“I have had three masters, Nature, Velázquez, and Rembrandt.”  Francisco Goya

Carol writes:

BARCELONA:  After we left Italy, we did a 3-day speed-run across southern France to the Spanish border, then headed down to Barcelona for our first stop.  We were treated to a warm and sunny day for our walk down Barcelona’s well-known Ramblas, a wide and busy pedestrian walkway through the heart of the city.


The highlight of the Ramblas walk was ‘La Boqueira’ covered market where enticing food and drink displays were a delight to the eye.

 

Other than people-watching, we found Barcelona rather uninteresting (i.e. little old-town character), just a very large modern city, very different from most of our other European travel destinations.  Our final stop for the day in Barcelona was at ‘La Sagrada Familia’, a giant unfinished church that has been under construction for 130 years!


MADRID:  The next day we drove into the heart of the Spanish countryside to Madrid, the capital and geographic center of Spain.  We were amazed at the very high quality of the secondary divided highways that we drove along.  Signage was excellent and design was very similar to the U.S. highway system.  We actually made very good time along these roads, which was a pleasant surprise, knowing we had about 350 miles to cover to get to Madrid.  I loved the giant bull silhouettes that popped up periodically along the route to Madrid.


From our vantage point along the highway, Spain looked to be a very rich country in terms of agriculture, with almost every acre under cultivation with either olive groves or vineyards.  However, as we neared the cities and looked closer, we could find evidence of Spain’s woeful economic problems—many large shuttered businesses, frequent abandoned construction projects, and, in the cities, lots of street entertainers and beggars trying to eke out a few euros from passersby.

Madrid was much like Barcelona, a large modern city very unlike much of the rest of Europe.  Large cities tend to have big problems when things go wrong, and Madrid was no exception.  Apparently, the city was a few days into a strike by its sanitation workers.  Trash was everywhere!  Trash cans were overflowing!  Such a stark contrast to Barcelona where the streets were neat and clean…


We had two planned destinations in Madrid.  The first was the Royal Palace, one of the most sumptuous palaces in all of Europe and home to Spanish royalty since the 17th century.


 We were beginning to realize that at most of Spain’s premier attractions indoor photos would not be allowed, as was the case at the Royal Palace.  However, the Internet had plenty of those forbidden indoor shots, so I have resorted to posting a few.  The palace rooms were beyond lavish,


with incredible porcelain walls in one small room,


and the world’s best collection of Stradivarius instruments in another.


The second reason we wanted to visit Madrid was for the opportunity to visit the Prado Museum, known for having one of the world’s greatest collections of European paintings.  We were in Spain…so the Prado’s collection was marvelously heavy on paintings by El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez.  Two of our favorites…

‘The Parasol’ by Goya
 
‘Las Meninas’ by Velázquez, one of the finest paintings in the art world

Doing a daylong museum crawl can be one of the most exhausting kind of walks, but we both felt that the Prado was worth it.

We finished out our day in Madrid at a popular overlook where, apparently, it was custom to gather for sunset.


NEAR MADRID:  From Madrid it was a short drive the next day into the surrounding hills where we had two destinations in mind.  In the morning we visited the reflective ‘Valley of the Fallen’, Spain’s somber stony monument to the 500,000 victims (on both sides) who lost their lives in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).  The 450-foot cross that sat atop the underground basilica was impressive.


The basilica itself (no photos allowed) was quite lovely in a stark kind of way. 


Al and I both felt that this monument was a splendid and appropriate memorial to a very sad time in Spanish history.

After checking into a nearby campground, in the afternoon we took a bus into the city to visit the Monastery of San Lorenzo at El Escorial, a 16th century combination palace/monastery from where Philip II directed the Spanish Inquisition.

 

The beginning of the tour was ho-hum…until we reached the royal mausoleum which housed the remains of 26 Spanish kings and queens over 4 centuries!  No pictures were allowed (of course), but it was a ‘wow moment.’ 


Identical royal coffins were stacked ‘4 high’ in niches along the wall of a grandiose circular room.  How did these pics from the Internet ever get taken?

TOLEDO:  The next day we spent a short time in Toledo visiting the famous Toledo Cathedral.  By now, we had visited many of Europe’s magnificent churches, so I think I can say with some credibility that the Cathedral of Toledo just didn’t meet our expectations…I found it rather disjointed in style and design, although I must admit that the altar area was grandiose.

In closing, our first impression of the great cities of Spain was a very favorable one, although it was a surprise to us that Barcelona and Madrid appeared so modern.  Before the worldwide economic downturn, Spain must have undergone a couple of decades of a tremendous building boom.  Hopefully, the Spanish economy recovers soon because, to our eyes, Spain appeared to have so much potential.  We have certainly been enjoying its marvelous off-season climate.  No wonder so many northern Europeans come to Spain to spend the winter.  Now we are anxious to visit some of Spain’s smaller southern cities where we can get a look at some wonderful Moorish history and architecture.  On to Cordoba and Granada!

“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.”  Moorish proverb