1,000 metres up: Hiking with Super Nicolas up Mt. Mansfield

Advice: in your 50s, don’t try to keep up with an 18-year-old. I learned that last year, when I went on a day-long hike my son.

An 18-year-old outdoor enthusiast with leg muscles like steel springs and shoulders like mine used to be.

Up a mountain. Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield, from the bottom to the top —a vertical distance of over 1,000 metres.

There is a toll road that you can drive up (for $27 per vehicle!); you can also take a ski gondola most of the way up, and then the challenging Cliff Trail from there to the summit, Vermont’s highest point.

Super Nicolas would have none of that. No, we had to hike. Up. All the way.

Vermont’s Long Trail stretches from the Canadian border, over the top ridge of Mt. Mansfield, over several other Green Mountains, all the way to the Massachusetts border and connects with the Appalachian Trail system.

Our summer vacation in 2012 was to Stowe, Vermont, home of the nauseatingly famous Von Trapps, and nestled on the southern slopes of Mount Mansfield. From Stowe, the crest of this mountain looks like the elongated profile of a face, with a distinctive forehead, nose, chin (the summit) and Adam’s apple, plus two other rises that could be lips.

20130820-141359.jpgI park at the bottom of the gondolas, and then Super Nicolas and I take the Haselton Trail, which is rated D for difficult. It’s very pleasant, although quite steep as it parallels the ski runs. Most of the lower part is under trees, along hogs-back ridges or winding across the slope. At several places, it crosses little mountain streams, allowing pleasant places to rest.

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A pleasant place to cool your overheated dogs, on the lower half of the trail up Mt. Mansfield.

The top half of the trail becomes ski runs in the winter, so they’re wide-open and exposed to the sun. However, because they’re around 3,000 feet above sea level, the conditions are breezy.

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The views as you ascend, especially from the ski runs, are spectacular. Here, we look east across the Green Mountains.

20130820-143157.jpgLooking down on the ski chalet above Stowe, VT. 

The Haselton Trail ends at the top of the Toll Road. We still have to hike up to the Visitor’s Center, which is at the base of the Nose. The Nose also has a number of antennae sticking up out of it.

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The Chin, right, and the Adam’s Apple (?) from the top of the Toll Road.

Apparently, there used to be a luxury hotel here, and one of the guests’ favourite activities was to sit on the patio, sip coffee and watch crazy people scale the cliffs. But the hotel was torn down in the 50s. The Visitor’s Center today has only a few brochures and posters of wildlife. There’s no running water, and the only bathrooms are two por-to-lets.

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The Cliff Trail branches off the main Long Trail, just in case you thought it wasn’t difficult enough.

From there, Super Nicolas and I take the Cliff Trail toward the summit. According to Wikipedia, the Cliff Trail is rated DDD. It must stand for “so Difficult, Don’t even try this, Dummy.”

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One of the tunnels you have to crawl through on Mt. Mansfield’s Cliff Trail.

The Cliff Trail presents challenges for the inexperienced climber. There are places where you have to turn around and climb up or down using your hands as well as feet. There are caves or tunnels that require you to take off your backpack and crawl on your hands and knees to get through. And there are three or four study ladders placed by the Green Mountains hiking club.

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The uphill exit of one cave was not easy for big men with shoulders to crawl through.

Watch out for all the moose poop. Sometimes it seems like the Cliff Trail should be called the Mooses’ Latrine.

The Cave of the Winds is near the northern end of the trail. It’s actually not a cave, but more of a place where a sheet of rock has split off from the main cliff face. There are bottomless holes that you have to jump over. When I went through, behind me was a family that got onto the last part of the Cliff Trail after riding up the ski gondola. I turned and pulled a 12-year-old boy over the last hole.

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Entering the Cave of the Winds. It’s worse once you get inside.

The last part of the Cliff Trail is a steep climb up rocks; the state or the hiking club or whoever maintains the trail has actually put iron loops into the rocks to help you climb over them.

When we finally get back to the Long Trail that winds more or less directly to the summit, I am panting and sweating. Thankfully, the Long Trail from here is easy: a slow, more or less steady climb up to the Chin.

Up this high, the trees are stunted. Signs advise you that the vegetation is delicate alpine/arctic tundra type, and urge visitors to “Take the Rock Walk” and stay off the plant life. The state has laid out string, looped around rocks, to guide your footsteps.

We walk up, and up, and up, toward what we both think is the peak. But when we get there, we realize it was an illusion: after a brief, shallow dip, the path rises again to the REAL summit.

I sit beside a woman in a pink hoodie. “Discouraging, isn’t it? I thought this was the top, too. Then I saw that.” she says, pointing to the trail that leads to the peak, a couple of hundred metres long.

I look at my watch. It is now 3:40, We had planned to ride the gondola down, but it closes at 4:30. “We’ve already come this far,” says Nicolas.

“Already,” I think. We started climbing the mountain before 11:00 a.m.

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Triumph! Super Nicolas IS the highest point in Vermont!

We make that last 200 metres or so fairly quickly and easily. Finally, we’re looking at a brass disk set into the rock, marking the highest point in Vermont. The view is stunning. Lake Champlain to the west, the Camel’s Hump to the south, green folds of Vermont to the east. Someone else at the top says that on a clear night, you can see the lights of Montreal in the north.

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Looking north; on a clear night, you can see the lights of Montreal.

But we don’t have much time to admire the view if we want to take the gondola. After taking it in, we hitch up our packs and begin the long walk down.

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We take enough time to allow another climber to take our picture.

The wind up here is frigid, but after the hard work of the climb up, it’s refreshing and we don’t bother putting on our long pants or sweat-shirts.

At the top of the Cliff Trail, we have to make a decision: do we attempt this strenuous climb down this DDD trail, back over the section with the loops driven into the smooth rocks and back through the Cave of Winds with its bottomless holes to jump over, to get to the gondola which closes in 19 minutes? If we miss the last gondola, our options down are:

  • back the way we came originally, retracing the rest of the extremely difficult Cliff Trail, up the ladders, along the ledges and through the tunnels
  • climb up through the Cave of Winds yet again, over the holes, hike up again over the smooth rocks and up the narrow steps back to the Long Trail, and then make a long slog down the Toll Road.

We elect not to take a chance on getting to the gondola in 19 minutes. It’s going to be long enough without having to double the Cliff Trail needlessly. The Long Trail to parking lot A at the Visitor’s Center is easy, and only takes a few minutes.

We must look tired when we get there — or at least, I must — because a family in a mini-van offers us a ride down. We accept.

The driver, Mike, explains that a friend has let him borrow his 1990 Honda Odyssey for the summer. The side doors don’t work anymore, so the whole family — his brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece — climb in the front doors and over the seats to sit in the back. Nicolas and I follow, and sit on the floor, squeezed between coolers and backpacks. We can’t see very well.

The toll road is very long, with a lot of switchbacks, and it seems even longer when you cannot see. And the road is quite steep.

After a while, Mike’s brother, sitting behind me, advises him to use the brakes rather than low gear to go downhill “because it’s cheaper to replace brake pads than a transmission.” Soon, the stink of overheated transmission oil is replaced by the much worse smell of burning brake pads.

The smell gets worse as we try to distract ourselves by exchanging information about where we’re from, our vacations and other small talk. But about half-way down the mountain, Sandra, in the back of three rows of seats, tells Mike to pull over. “The fumes are really building up back here,” she says. “And we can’t open the back window.” I look back: one of the teenagers, sitting in the cargo area, looks like she’s about to faint.

Mike pulls over where the road is a little wider. We clamber out and suck in as much clean air as we can. I hold my hand 15 centimetres from the rear fender to feel the heat radiating from the overworked brakes.

The youngest teenager wobbles around for a minute, woozy from the fumes of burning brake pads, then twists her ankle. Fortunately, Sandra, her aunt, is a registered nurse. Eventually, with the fumes dissipated and the ankle wrapped, we climb back into the minivan for the remainder of the trip.

Fortunately, we’re not far from the bottom at this point, and the brakes and transmission have a much easier time. Mike drives us to the parking lot at the bottom of the chairlift where we left our car. We say thank you and wish our short-term companions well.

As we watch the minivan drive back down Mountain Road toward Stowe, I am surprised not to see smoke coming out of it.

“So, what was more adventurous?” I ask Super Nicolas. “The climb up, or the drive down in the burning minivan?”

Nic laughs. “The trip down was more dangerous.”

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The lower part of the trail was hot on that summer day in 2012 – the hottest summer for eastern North America.
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Holiday in Spain: Granada

As beautiful as the Alhambra is, it's not Granada's only attraction.

The Alcazaba, the oldest fortress of the Alhambra, overlooks the Albaicin section of Granada.

The Alhambra is far from Granada’s only attraction. After our tour of the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces, the Generalife and the many other pleasures of the Alhambra, we try to take in the other sights of Granada.

Warning: getting around Granada requires a good map or GPS. For some reason, this is the first time I’ve gone on a trip without careful maps and plans for every place I plan to visit. There are a couple of ways out of the Alhambra. The most obvious one, down from the Parador and through the Puerta de Vino, curves sharply left to a steep one-lane way downhill. This is not the same way that we came in from the parking lot. It deposits us at the bottom of the hill at a blind corner of two very narrow streets — barely wide enough for two cars to pass.

Tip: Orient yourself in Granada

The Alhambra in total is oriented almost exactly west-to-east, with the oldest part, the Alcazaba fortress, pointing westward toward the Plaza Nueva and the Cathedral of Granada. This is the point from which most of the streets seem to radiate.

The Darro River flows westward, along the north side of the promontory that the Alhambra sits on, before it goes under the city itself. The city covered over the Darro in the 16th century.

But don’t trust Google Maps — it shows roads down from the Alhambra to the city that don’t exist. The map in the guide-book is oriented with east on the top, though, so it’s confusing until you compare it with a real map. Get a good tourist map from the tourist office early, and study it closely before you get there.

Our destination after the Alhambra was what Frommer’s guide called “the most romantic street in Granada,” which would be saying a lot. However, the car’s gas gauge was right on empty, and my first priority was to find a gas station. At the blind corner coming out of the Alhambra, we turn left, toward the highway. Several roundabouts later, we find a place to fill up. Then it’s back to the centre of the city.

We park at an indoor parking lot with distressingly narrow spots. It’s a good thing we have a small car on this trip. We walk to the Plaza Nueva, past the monument to Isabella I, then the Plaza Santa Ana, which is really more of a continuation of the Plaza Nueva. There are tourist shops here and gypsies hawking all kinds of junk, as well as restaurants and bars and ice-cream stands.

The small Church of Santa Ana is built on the site of a former mosque, and is the spot where the Darro is covered over. It’s also across the end of that tiny stream from the beginning of the Carrera del Darro, which is not only romantic, narrow and picturesque, but also very crowded with pedestrians. We pause to let the man with the trolley of fish, destined for the restaurants at the top of the street, get sufficiently ahead of us.

There are museums and other historic buildings along the Carrera, but we can look up and see the Alcazaba over the Darro. The Carrera ends ad the Paseo de los Tristes, or Avenue of the Sad Ones, apparently so named because funeral corteges used to pass here. It’s now a very pleasant pedestrian park, a widening in the bank of the river where restaurants have set up patios.

The food here is great, and very reasonable. We choose one of the many patios lined up along the bank, and while we wait for our order, watch people stroll past. There are many, many tourists, but locals as well. A young woman sits on a park bench and begins playing guitar, busking. We can see the Alhambra and, to the left, the Generalife.

Paseo de los Tristes

A young woman busks under the Alhambra.

After lunch, we stroll uphill, away from the Darro. This is the Albaicin, the old Arab Quarder. It’s all white-washed walls and wrought-iron gates giving glimpses of courtyards filled with fruit trees. At the top of the hill is the Mirador de San Nicolas, a lookout spot that give you a great view of Granada, the Alhambra and the Generalife.

Roxanne in Granada

Strolling up the Carrera de la Darro

Scott in Granada

There is a row of excellent restaurants for lunch along the Paseo de los Tristes.

Cats on the Darro

We looked over the railing along the Darro, to see cats hunting in the grass under the Alhambra

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One of the elegant courtyards of the Albaicin in Granada.

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Another elegant courtyard-garden in the Albaicin.

 

The Alhambra from Granada

The Paseo patios give you a great view of the Alhambra. This is the Alcazaba, the original Moorish fortress.

All too soon, we have to leave. It’s a long drive ahead of us, to Seville. Basically, we’ll be crossing Andalusia again. But we promise each other to come back to Granada one day.

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Take a holiday in Spain: The Alhambra

20120417-140339.jpgSince I heard of it as a teenager, the Alhambra has seemed to be a jewel, a shining, perfect example of comfort, peace and repose for a prince. Pictures in books, TV and the Web presented cool gardens and reflecting pools, fountains gently spewing rippling streams, flowers and fruit trees and shade that made me want to put on a long, loose robe and recline on cushions to read poetry.

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Its history as a relic of the Moorish rulers of Al-Andalus, subsequently conquered and claimed by energetically Catholic Spanish royalty, yet preserved in its Moorish-Arabian characteristics, only added to the magic.

From a distance, the Alhambra, the Alcazaba fortress in front of it, and the Generalife pleasure palace behind, all retain a mythical power, situated above the ancient and modern city of Granada. Getting there is not difficult: there are clear signs all the way from the highway. We simply follow the signs, a little uncertain at times as we negotiate roundabouts in the dark.

As we come off the A-44, we encounter a police roadblock at the bottom of the ramp. There are the small Spanish police cars on both sides of the road, pylons and barriers that leave just a narrow lane between them, and what looks like an armoured van to one side. The Spanish police look more like military men, with serious weapons. They stop every car as gets to the end of the ramp, look carefully at the driver, and direct more than one to the side of the road. But the soldier with the flashlight just glances at us and waves us through. We’re not sure whether to be relieved or somewhat insulted. (What, we don’t look dangerous?)

We follow our Google directions through a labyrinth of exits, smaller highways, roundabouts and a tunnel until we start climbing switchbacks that take us above the city lights. The final roundabout is confusing: it seems for a moment that we have to drive in the left lane, along a narrow road that climbs above the parking lots. But our destination is the most popular Parador in Spain, the Parador de Granada, sometimes called the Parador Alhambra.

A Parador is a government-owned hotel located in an old castle or monastery. They’re a great idea. Most of them are priced quite reasonably (the Alhambra is expensive, but no more than you’d expect for such a site). All meet stringent quality and cleanliness standards.

We had decided on the Parador de Granada because it’s actually on the grounds of the Alhambra, located in a 15th-century convent. That location would make it easier to get tickets to the site, and faster access. Also, we would not have to pay for transportation and parking.

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We had also thought that if we got there early enough in the evening, we would have time to stroll around the grounds and gardens of the Alhambra, something that only Parador guests can do after closing time.

As it turned out, we made a sudden decision to have supper in another Parador in Jaen, on the road from Toledo. Also, our drive was extended due to some weaknesses in the Google directions. So it was after 11:00 p.m. before we arrived. Still, we could take in the grace of the layout of the old fortress/palace, the intricate mosaic of the walking path in the Parador’s courtyard, the age of the convent itself. As we are traveling in early April, the leaves are just starting to appear on the trees and there are few flowers, which detracts from the reality’s comparison to the pictures.

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The walking path of the courtyard outside the Parador de Granada is a mosaic of rounded stones.

The Parador de Granada is a high-end luxury hotel. While the building is 600 years old, the interior is very modern. It’s sparkling clean, with chic, modern furniture. Switches on each side of the bed control all the lights in the room, even in the bathroom. It’s a nice touch.

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From our window, we can see the Generalife. That’s a palace the Moorish Nasrid princes who ruled Granada in the 14th century built as a retreat from the comparative stress of the Alhambra.

Getting into the Alhambra
Even though we’re on the grounds of the Alhambra, we have to purchase tickets to get into the ancient fortress and palaces. Following the advice of a couple of guide-books (Frommer’s Spain in particular), we have purchased our tickets in advance, over the Web. The ticket specifies a time to be there, and recommends you arrive either an hour or a half-hour before that time (depending on which part of the ticket you look at). If you don’t get there at your time, you don’t get in. Unfortunately, the only time we could reserve was 8:30 a.m.

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Worse: the hotel doe not serve breakfast until 8:00 a.m. I have learned that you cannot be in two places at one time when you are traveling, and the hotel is a 10 to 15-minute walk from the gate to the Alhambra proper.

I ask the early-morning desk man, Juan, around 7:00 a.m. if there is a way to get an early breakfast. “Just a moment. I will check the kitchen,” he replied. A few minutes later, he arrives at our room with a tray of delicious muffins, cookies and other treats for a sweet breakfast—no charge.

After breakfast, I jog down to the gate to exchange our ticket vouchers for actual tickets. I am dismayed by the line-up already there at 8:00, but that’s the line for people to buy tickets. The voucher-exchange line is much shorter, and both lines move quickly. The take-away here is: tourist sites anywhere are not that crowded in early April. However, I still recommend booking your tour well in advance here.

Another jog back up the hill to the entrance of the Alcazaba and the Nasrid Palaces. Here, the Spanish officials are very punctual: they keep about 20 visitors waiting on the plateau, behind a rope barrier, until precisely 8:30. It’s not so bad, though: we can look at the exterior of the Nasrid palace and the Palace of Charles V—a Renaissance European building that looks completely out of place among the Moorish architecture—and the view over the city and the plain beyond. 

The 16th-century Palace of Charles V seems out of place in the Alhambra. 20120417-140646.jpg

The buildings are deceptive: the columns and walls look delicate with their lace-like stone-work and mosaics, but this was, after all, a fortress. The Alcazaba, at the edge of the cliff, looks more imposing and business-like, but the palace is all cool shade.

The Alcazaba, the original fortress of the Alhambra, overloooks Granada.20120417-135528.jpg

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The lace-like stone, plaster and woodwork of the Moors was unparalleled.

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Unfortunately, we seem to have arrived in maintenance season. The fabled Lion Fountain is half-covered in boards; workmen and -women chip away at marble tiles or drill into stone; parts of the exhibit are covered.

20120417-135731.jpgAlso, the sky is grey and most of the trees are still bare or just starting to get leaves. Still, we get a great tour.

Yes, there ARE palm trees here, although I’m not certain whether these are native to the area or were brought a millennium ago by the Moors.

The Moors loved water: there are pools and fountains in every building in the palace. There is of course the famous Lion Fountain and the long reflecting pool in the Court of Myrtles, and there are other, smaller fountains, just a low spout in the centre of a square or round pool, feeding narrow channels that I presume will run with a shallow stream of clear, cool water when all the work is finished. In the Generalife, we see the fabled Water Stairway: a staircase leading up from the central garden court that has running streams on each side. They’re tiny, but their effect is very peaceful.

There are several groups here, but the place is not crowded. Teenagers seem more taken with the local cats than with the art and architecture.

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While there is a lot of history here, and audio-guides to follow and signs to read, you can also get a lot from the Alhambra and Generalife just by acting like a Nasrid prince: stroll slowly, enjoy the flowers, breathe the air. All these centuries later, it’s still one of the most peaceful and beautiful places in the world.20120417-140914.jpg

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Holiday in Spain: Andalusia

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This is something the guidebooks don’t tell you: Andalusia goes absolutely ga-ga for Holy Week, the week preceding Easter. Unless you are enthusiastically religious AND love standing in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and breathing someone else’s cigarette smoke, DO NOT come to Seville during Holy Week. If you DO like that, then Seville on Easter Week is just right for you.

We came out of the Alcazar (al-cats-ah, the royal palace started by the Moors, enlarged and made even more beautiful by Pedro the Just, called “the Cruel” by the Church and the other nobles who were his enemies), sat down at a cafe and saw streams of people, all heading toward the cathedral. We wondered what it was all about. “It can’t be for Easter yet — it’s only Wednesday!” we thought.

But as we walked toward the bridge to our hotel in the Triana section, we encountered bigger and thicker crowds. At times, we could barely move. A parade of young men and boys in robes and high, pointed hoods wound through the main streets and squares. Police blocked close access to those streets, and prevented anyone from crossing the parade. All the shops and cafes on those streets were shuttered.

It seemed that every man, woman and child had put on their best clothes and headed for the parade. There were young families, many taking their grandparents; older people; groups of teenaged boys and girls, all in their Sunday best. People hustled down the thoroughfares, then stopped suddenly to greet their friends. Teenage girls swayed unsteadily, still not used to their high heels, and smoked when out of sight of their parents.

Several times, we started down one small street only to meet a blockade of people watching the parade. Down one tiny alley, we saw a float carrying a statue from a church, of Jesus in the crown of thorns, clutching a column; we watched it go by along the main street, then changed direction down a cross-street, found another alley and ran into a different part of the parade, which had also changed direction. We saw another float, this one carrying a glorious praying Mary — not a statue this time, but a young woman in full costume.

It was difficult to see much detail, though, among the crowds. There was just no way to get to the front of the crowd to see much. We could glimpse the floats between buildings at the ends of the alleys; of the marchers, all we could see over the heads of the Sevillians was their pointed hoods.
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Eventually, we found our way around the end of the parade, past the bull-ring. The Paseo de Cristobal Colon, which runs along the Guadalcivir River, was choked with small cars. Police directed traffic at the Puerta da Isabelle II. We crossed and I slumped against the railing when we reached the far bank.

“Do you think any restaurants will be open on this side, today?” Roxanne asked. It was a rhetorical question. Neither of us had a clue.

A look at our guidebook showed that a supposedly interesting restaurant was close by, and it turned out to be a three-minute walk from the bridge. Triana is a very working-class neighbourhood. There is nothing quaint, old-fashioned or even charming about it. The buildings look like they were erected in the 1950s, but they could be older. On the other hand, the area still seems to have an almost medieval urban plan. Well, not quite medieval, but the streets are far too narrow for the number of cars. Several streets are barely wide enough for a car to pass a pedestrian, but that does not prevent the Trianians from barreling along at top speed.

The restaurant is La Cuena Cuesta. Frommers claims its biggest table is rough-hewn and surrounds a tree trunk that supports a massive ceiling. There’s nothing like that in either its restaurant or its bar section.

By the way, food service in most of Europe IS that specialized. Cafes serve coffee, bars serve wine and beer and other spirits, restaurants serve meals. You can get tapas at a tapas bar, but not a full meal, and you usually cannot get tapas at a restaurant, except at certain hours. We arrived at around 7:00 p.m., when no self-respecting Spaniard would be caught dead eating, and were told there was no food available until 8:00. And we were too late for tapas, too. So we sat down for a drink to wait until suppertime. The restaurant and bar were quite pleasant — but there were no massive ceiling, no tree, no rough-hewn table.

Sometimes we wonder whether Frommer’s authors ever actually visit the places the write about, or just collect tourist information.

Next: Jerez and Africa.

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One day, two continents

Or, saying “no” to guide after guide

April 5, 2012
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I can see Africa!

We are on the ferry in Tarifa, waiting to cast off for Tangier. It rained earlier, but the sky is now clearing. Standing on the dock in line, waiting for the ferry, we felt hot under the Andalusian sun. Still, there are clouds over Africa. I hope it’s not raining there.

From the window on the ferry I can see dim outlines of the Atlas Mountains. Gradually, the skyclears, bringing the mountains into sharper focus.

We missed the 11:00 boat by minutes. After dropping Roxanne at the dock to get in line, then parking the car, I ran back to the dock just in time to see the boat start to leave, about 10 minutes late. We exchanged our tickets for the next available crossing, at 3 p.m. Four hours to kill, less one to stand in line. Ironically, the 13:00 and 15:00 boats both leave 45 minutes late. Why couldn’t the 11:00 have been this late?

We kill some time with a visit to a fortress built by the Omayyids and then enlarged by Guzman the Just in the twelfth century. Guzman is famous because after he captured the fortress on the coast from the Moors, he was besieged there. The Moors captured his son and threatened to kill him unless Guzman surrendered. Guzman threw his own dagger down to the Moors for the deed to be accomplished. I did not read what happened after that.

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On the walls of the old castle at Tarifa, looking across to stormy, rainy Africa.

We line up at 2:00 p.m., but the boat doesn’t arrive from Tangier until about 2:40. When we reach the Embarquero gate, we’re behind a group of young, Arabian-looking men. The security guards and ticket-checker are hassling them for some reason in rapid, staccato Spanish, telling them they have to wait. They ask the line-up behind something. I raise my passport to show “Canada,” and they wave us through while the young Arabs yell their protest. The ticket checker rushes Roxanne and me to the passport control, who barely glance at our documents to stamp them. Then we’re on The dock and onto the boat.

Then, we wait. I find a couple of window seats. I go up to the cafe counter for more water and notice line-ups on each side of the cabin. At the front of each one, an official from Morocco checks passports again.

A German man beside me asks anther passenger about the lines. He’s worried that the boat won’t leave until all the passports are checked, but the Spanish passenger and the girl behind the counter reassure him that he can wait until later to declare customs.

I take the forms and sit down to fill them out. The line is now all the way to the back of the cabin. Why are people lined up? it won’t get them to Africa any sooner.

The boat finally casts off, 45 minutes late.

The sea looks smooth, with small whitecaps, but as we get out onto it, we can feel the swell. We pass a blue cargo ship with four cranes, with the words Pacific Basin on the side. Huge wave splash up from her bows.

When the line is shorter, I go to Customs. There are only a few people behind me. The agent asks about my “profession.” I tell him “redacteur,” French for editor. He seems worried that I’m a journalist. Since I have not sold an article in a year, I feel justified in saying no. Roxanne explains that I work for the government, but the agents still scribbles something in red on my customs declaration, then stamps it, Roxanne’s and our passports.

Tangier is a big, modern-looking city from the harbours. Lots of tall, white, new buildings, from the shore and ranging up the hills. Lots of construction cranes. A big, pink building toward the east side. Little open boats with outboard motos among the big ships. A wide beach.

The second we get off the boat, we are assailed by a series of “official” tour guides. “This is Africa. You cannot go to the Souk or the Medina or the Kasbah alone!” they all tell us. I quickly befriend an English-speaking German couple. I figure four have more chance than two of blowing off the persistent tour guides, as well as facing down any problems we might encounter in the city. The woman hesitates, checks with her husband, who shrugs good-naturedly. We brush off a second guide, who had pretended to be a businessman returning from Spain. “You are disappointing me,” he says. “You will say, ‘I wish I had hired Abdul.'”

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Free of Abdul! But not free of would-be guides. Crossing the last empty space before the walls of the old city, we are greeted by a young man in a white pullover. “Medina, old city, Kazbah, this way. You need a guide. Twenty euro for all of you.”

“No, thanks,” I say. Nina, Umid and Roxanne all shake their heads.

“Twenty-five hundred streets in Tangier. No signs. You will get lost. I will take you for 14 euro.”

I see steps on the right and lead our little party up to a lookout, escaping the persistent guide. Below us is the port. To each side stretch the walls of old Tangier. On one side is a bay, and across it, the white high-rises of the new city. And ahead, across the misty blue water, the coast of Europe.
Two continents in one view. Fantastic.

Next post: in the Medina of Tangiers.

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Take a holiday in Spain: Madrid, day 2

Unlike most hotels in Austria, Spanish hotels do not seem to normally offer breakfast included in the price of an overnight stay. The Atlantico has a large buffet breakfast, but it seemed quite pricey. So we did the North American tourist thing: we went to the Starbucks a few doors down the Grand Via.

We decide to get to the Prado early to beat the crowds, then go to the Palacio Real in the afternoon. It turns out, though, that it would have been better to go to the Palacio in the morning, as it takes less time (well, you can spend a whole day there, but it’s not necessary), then take a more relaxed pace and thorough visit to the Prado until closing time. But finding out things like that is one of the purposes of this blog.

The museum is a 15-minute walk from our hotel, on a very pleasant, wide, tree-lined boulevard. Just walking along it is a worthwhile experience.

Prado museum image courtesy spainted.com

As we approach the Prado, a woman with an ID badge pinned to her jacket asks “Do you speak English?” She then gives us some information, such as opening and closing time of the Prado, the fact that the modern-art museum, the Reina Isabella, is less crowded, and all admittance is free after 6:00 p.m. Then she asks us for money “for charity.”

TIP: don’t respond to people who ask you questions near major tourist destinations in Spain. It’s a shake-down at best. I’ve read that some hustlers and pick-pockets use diversions like this to distract you while they rob you, but I never was robbed.

The line-up looks long, but not as long as it did yesterday evening. We wait less than 15 minutes before we’re inside. Another 5 euros in addition to the admission price gets you a thick, full-colour guide-book, so it’s well worth the cost. And if you want pictures, you’ll need it—the Prado is quite strict about not allowing any photography inside.

The Prado is huge. The initial gallery is lined on both sides with huge oils by Titian, Velazquez, Rubens and others. First is a portrait of Charles V, he of the long Hapsburg chin, the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. Beside him is his son, Philip II. lAt the far end is an octagonal room displaying what Frommer’s guide describes as “Goya’s unflattering portraits of the royal family of Charles IV.” The authors are right: the King looks like a fool simpering on horseback, and the Queen looks like a bitter old lady.

We have to pause here to figure this out: Charles IV ruled in the early 19th century, Charles V during the early 16th. Right: he was Charles V Holy Roman Emperor, son of Philip the Fair of Burgundy and grandson of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian of Innsbruck, the Hapsburg who married his children to royal houses from one end of Europe to the other. Charles V of Austria was Charles I of Spain.

Now that we have that worked out, we can enjoy the rest of the museum. Well, not all the rest. There are rooms and rooms. We see portrait of Hapsburg after Hapsburg, Hapsburgs from Spain and Hapsburgs from Austria, all married to their uncles or cousins, or getting ready to marry a niece.

There are also paintings of mythological figures and scenes from the bible. The Spanish are much more prudish than the Italians: all the nudes are strategically covered by branches or falling cloth or something else. The Italians did not worry about covering male genitalia.

There is a room dedicated to Goya’s “black paintings,” so-called not just because of the dominant colour, but also because these were his drawings from the Peninsular War, when Spain fought for its independence from Napoleonic France. According to Goya’s depictions, this war was especially brutal. This room also houses a disturbing painting by Goya of Saturn devouring his children.

Thankfully, there is more cheerful art to see after this. We stop to see his painting of the Naked Maja, the first nude of a woman that was not excused by supposedly being a Greek goddess. Nope. Goya had the guts to just say, “I got this woman to take off her clothes, and I painted her because I think she’s beautiful.” So much for Spanish modesty. There is also the famous Clothed Maja, the same woman in exactly the same pose, lying on a bed with her hands behind her head, but it’s not next to the Naked Maja, as the guidebooks led us to believe. The museum is not informative about the Clothed Maja’s whereabouts. Maybe with the Naked Maja there, no one cares about the clothed one.

This was the last week for a special exhibit from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. A whole building is dedicated to an exhibit of paintings, sculptures, Scythian jewelry, pottery and other treasures from Russia, including a jeweled sculpture of a flower in a glass vase by Fabergé.

There is still much left to see: more by Goya, Murillo, Titian, Velazquez. You could spend days here. But we don’t have that much time in Madrid, and in the afternoon we regretfully leave the Prado for the Palacio Real across town.

TIP: If you leave the Prado before closing time, you can get your entry ticket stamped at the Educacion office for free re-entry later that day.

The Palacio Real

We walk from the Prado along the Calle Real, through the Puerta del Sol to the Palacio Real—the Royal Palace—in less than half an hour.

Some of the palace is still used by the Spanish government, although it’s not clear whether the royal family still lives there at any time. As you might expect, it’s very grand. It’s about as big as the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, the other Hapsburg palace, in Vienna.

Inside, “opulent” does not begin to describe the Palacio. The King of Spain had rooms to meet ambassadors, rooms for dining, a room about the size of my whole house for dressing in. He would stand with his arms outstretched and servants would hang clothes on him.

Much of the palace that is open to public tours seems to feature Charles III, the enlightened despot. There are paintings of Carlos and his very large nose. Mirrors and painting have frames in a riot of rococo decoration. Swirls, leaves, curves, cherubs and other motifs fill every available space. “Over the top” does not come close to describing the overabundance of decoration.

TIP: do NOT come here for interior design ideas.

The guidebooks say you can spend an hour to an hour and a half here, and while you probably could see more, I think you get as much as you’re going to get from this site in an hour or so. Don’t rush through it, but don’t linger too long. There is much else to see in Madrid. Tomorrow: the Plaza Mayor

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Holiday in Spain: Madrid, day 1

In the following series of posts, about my trip to Spain, I will try to give you some observations and tips that you do not find in most travel guidebooks.

Madrid
Madrid is one city, and many cities at once.
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It’s a typical modern western European capital city, and a very grand former Imperial capital. A home for the Hapsburgs, a vibrant, individual cultural scene at once an integral part of the current European culture. It’s vibrant, courteous, charming, imposing, inviting all at once.
Our hotel, the Atlantico, is in a perfect location for getting to know this city. It’s situated on the Gran Via, one of the main east-west thoroughfares and a major shopping street. Traffic here is fast, but no worse than any other large city. Wide avenues and lots of roundabouts keep it flowing well. Drivers honk frequently, but not as frequently as those in Rome, and it’s more to warn other drivers than to protest or punish them.

The Atlantico is about mid-way between the Palacio Real and the cathedral to the west and the Prado Museum and botanical gardens to the east, and walking distance to either. On the south side of the Gran Via begins a tangle of streets around the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor. Some of the streets are pedestrian-only, but not all, so be careful. Taxis like to push down the streets honking at you to get out of way.
After we check into the hotel and take a little rest, we walk over toward the Palacio Real. It was March 31, the last day of the winter schedule, and the Palace closed at 6:00 p.m., which meant the ticket office closed at 5:00 — just as we arrived.

Non-travel-guide tip: starting on April 1, the Palacio, the Prado and most of the other attractions are open until 8:00, and after 6, admittance is free.

We decided to take a tour on a double-decker tourist bus. It’s 20 euros per person for the day, but you can hop on and off at will. We take one circuit on Route 1, from the Palacio and cathedral, along the Calle Mayor. We can see the Plaza Major, but it’s strictly pedestrian-only and separated from the main streets. Then there’s the Puerta del Sol, the city’s main intersection, jammed with people, taxis, buses, soccer experts demonstrating their foot-ball juggling prowess in front of a sporting goods store. There are even a few policemen mounted on horseback.

This is a great way to get oriented to the city. We see the Gran Via, the Bank of Spain, several fountains and other grand buildings. We are introduced to various neighbourhoods. When the bus goes past the Prado Museum—Madrid’s art scene crown jewel and home to more art than any other capital, or so it claims—we see a long line-up. It turns out, though, that that’s because late admittance to almost all Spanish museums is free.20120411-124543.jpg

After one circuit on Route 1, we walk to a fairly tony shopping district, where, according to Frommer’s guide, a store sells espadrilles — Spanish shoes that tie at the ankle. Just as we’re beginning to doubt Frommer’s reliability, we find it—ten minutes before closing. Roxanne picks out some espadrilles, and then we look for the tour bus back to the hotel. We’re jet-lagged and our strength is ebbing fast.

We’re the only passengers on the Route 2 bus as it nears the Puerta del Sol again. On one side is a temporary wooden wall around some kind of construction, built in a curve. As the bus rounds it, it gets very close to the wall.

There’s a shadowed movement at the side window. “STOP STOP STOP!” I yell out. The bus has nearly crushed a woman against the wall. The bus lurches to a halt, and the woman slides out of the narrow space, rounds the front of the bus and continues into the square as if this is something that happens every day.

It’s late, but the Spanish don’t eat supper until 10:00, or so the guide-books tell us. This seems true: restaurants are almost deserted after 8:00 p.m. Roxanne wants tapas, and Frommer’s lists one of the best choices for Tapas as the Taberna Toscana. It’s on a street called Manuel de Huertas. I ask the guide on the bus for the street, but he’s never heard of it nor the restaurant. “There are many small streets here,” he says. “You can look for it.”

We’re not very hopeful. The street is not marked on any of the four tourist maps of Madrid that I’m carrying, nor in the guide book. We wander for a few minutes, and just as we’re about to give up on this particular restaurant, I notice the street sign.

It’s a narrow street, more of an alley with restaurants down each side. They’ve all set up tables and umbrellas in the street. The Taberna Toscana is at the far end.

Toscana appears to be more of a locals’ hang-out than an internationally known restaurant. It’s just past nine, so there are only a few people at the bar or sitting on low stools around the tables. A waiter greets us in Spanish, but speaks perfect English. He beckons us to a window table, where we can lean back against the wall. It’s tight, but comfortable enough once we get in. The food is excellent, and a great value: with a half-bottle of excellent Riscal white wine and more food than we can eat, tax and gratuity, the bill is less than 50 euros. Watch for a future post about dining in Spain.
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Finally, we go back to the hotel. It’s only about a 10-minute walk away, through the Puerta del Sol again. For a nightcap, the hotel has a wonderful top-floor lounge with a rooftop patio. What a great way to end our first day in Madrid.

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