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Spain

Cruise Stop – Barcelona

Barcelona is BIG. The cruise docked early and allowed us off right at 7 a.m. Well, they delayed slightly while they stood around trying to figure out whether we were supposed to get off ramp A or ramp B. It was barely light when we got off and the blue buses that go from the port to the Columbus statue were not yet running (had to ask a policeman). So, we took a taxi directly to the train station so that we could catch a train to Montserrat. The taxi was not expensive and he ran the meter (about 10 euros for three of us–direct to the train station drop-off of our choice.)

There was someone at the ticket machine to help us purchase the correct ticket (Always a nice feature when train stations are aware a ship is coming in and have someone around to offer assistance!) We learned that using a credit card would result in a slightly higher fee so we used cash. We had a little trouble locating the correct track, but kept asking and people kept pointing!

The train ride itself was nothing particularly special. We missed getting off at our correct stop. We wanted to get off, but the doors didn’t open. We did not know we had to press a button to have the doors open–apparently not too many people get off at the first Montserrat stop–the one with the cable car ride up the mountain (as opposed to the train ride up the mountain at the next stop.) The ticket we had purchased was not interchangeable so we had to catch a very short train back to the first stop and then walk a short distance to the cable car station to the get cable car.

The cable car ride was very nice–good views of the river, the mountains, the works. On the way up, we could see the “stations of the cross” — spots along a mountain trail where various monuments had been set up. Oooh, how I wish we could have hiked that trail, but with mom’s bum knee, we settled for touring the church and then taking another mountain train all the way to the peak. There were more trails up there. Dad and I hiked a sort distance along one of them to check out the overview. Again–we would have liked to have hiked, but in this case, we decided it make more sense to head back to Barcelona to see some of the city.

We regretted that decision later. Barcelona is much like any big European city. Yes, there are things to see; lots of shopping along Las Ramblas–lots of people and generic, overpriced tourist goods. We struggled to find anything worth buying. We went to the famous Barcelona market, but it was almost entirely food items–uncooked and for those staying with a stove/kitchen. It too was crowded and not exactly a pleasant stroll. I had hoped to buy some Spanish olive oil and some of the famous sheep’s cheese (like a Romano). I didn’t see the olive oil. The cheese was more expensive than the imported Spanish cheese I can buy in my local grocery–by a large enough dollar amount, that I passed.

We scurried about to see one or two churches from the outside and then caught a taxi back to the ship. We all agreed that staying at Montserrat for a few extra hours would have been better. If you go to Barcelona and you’ve already seen your fill of monuments/churches, take a tour to Montserrat–or head north. I understand a couple of hours north of Barcelona there are some wonderful coastal towns and coastline. More research is required of course–if you’re on a cruise, you only have so many hours, so you’ll want to make sure that you can get to and from wherever you go in enough time to enjoy yourself. I heartily recommend Montserrat. It was easy to get to by train, cheap (about 20 euros round trip per person and it included the entire train ride–cable car–and peak train.) It was very nice to be outdoors and Montserrat is quite beautiful.

Posted: November 22, 2009
Filed in Europe, Spain

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain was the last stop on the tour. We planned to spend a couple of days here, thinking it would be a rather small, quaint town. For the record, it’s a very large city; not a picturesque coastal town. It took me ages to find a decent guidebook, but find one I did. I’ve talked about it before:

Footsteps Guide – Malaga Spain

If you will be stopping in Malaga, Spain for any reason, get this guide. As a walking guide, it needs more street names or more anchors so that walkers know for certain they are on the right path, but as a preparation guide–choosing what you want to see and do–it’s an absolute necessity. Once in Malaga, stop at a tourist kiosk and get a city map–the guide does not include one and a map of some kind will help you stay oriented.

If you are arriving on a cruise and the cruise ship says it will be in port at 5 a.m. be aware that they are not likely to let you off the cruise until 6 or well-after. Also be aware that when you do get off, the disembarking procedures are a bit on the chaotic side–do *not* schedule a flight out of Malaga in the morning. You aren’t likely to make the flight. There were a number of passengers frantically trying to get off the ship, find their luggage (you are not allowed to take your own luggage off–it gets put into a giant holding area where you get to hunt it down), find a taxi (there were not enough in port that early in the morning) and try to make the airport by 9. Not a good time.

We arrived in the dark–there went plans to stroll to breakfast. We got a taxi, which took us to our beautiful, reasonably price hotel, Hotel Villa Guadalupe, up on a hill overlooking parts of the city. No one was at the front desk at that early hour (7:30ish?) but the taxi driver very nicely called the number on the buzzer and the owner soon arrived. We got our luggage checked in, but our room had not yet been vacated/cleaned, so we sat in the lobby for a while (exhausted) and had coffee and rolls provided by the hotel. The hotel staff was splendid the entire trip. If you are able to walk steep inclines to reach the hotel from the bus stop (or willing to spend money on taxis) I *highly* recommend this hotel.

After our rest, we took a bus back into the main part of Malaga. The walk to the bus stop was about 1/3 to 1/4 of a mile *straight* downhill, through back streets. This was fine for me, but a bit of a difficult walk for mom and her bum knee. We managed. The bus was about 1.10 euro per person; you pay the driver when you get on. Make a careful note of the area–the bus did not stop exactly on the other side of the street from the bus stop (the stop was actually several yards earlier, thus making it a bit difficult to figure out.) The driver could not help us because the hotel is located in a neighborhood; it’s not a “main” location that a bus driver will know.

Well worth seeing was the Alcazaba, an 11the century castle built by the moors. It’s not expensive to tour (self-guided for a few euros) and there are a few museum pieces inside. The courtyards/buildings are very interesting and the whole tour is very pretty. As with most places we were at in Europe, there are few signs describing what you are looking at. In this case, the footsteps guide mentioned above provided nice background information on the building.

The Malaga Cathedral (one picture above) was a very nice church to visit–gorgeous from both the inside and outside; well-worth the small fee.

We wanted to see Flamenco dancing while in Spain–but unfortunately such dancing starts very late: 11:30 or so. We were told by one place that it started at 9:30–so we showed up for dinner at 9, but then found out *piano* music started at 9:30. The flamenco wasn’t until 11:30 or so. We didn’t stay. The food was awful, and we felt we had been misled when we asked at the establishment earlier in the day. My Spanish isn’t perfect, but “Flamenco” and “What time does it start?” is not really close to “Piano music.”

That brings us to the other huge disappointment in Malaga: Food. In my defense, let me say that I did my homework before going. I researched, got recommendations and even cooked paella for myself. In one case, a recommended place was not open on weekends, so we had to just pick a place nearby because siesta was nearing, and we knew a lot of places would be closing for a few hours. We supposedly ordered meatballs in tomato sauce, and chicken with fries. What we got was bread balls in tomato sauce, and chicken and fries sitting in an inch of oil. I won’t dwell on it, but if you go to Spain, plan on finding a grocery and getting snacks until you can get decent recommendations (which were generally in a much, much higher price range. For good food, it appeared you had to spend fifteen euros or more per person and even then there was no guarantee you’d like it–fried food was plentiful and veggies relatively uncommon.) We did order paella at a restaurant, but I don’t believe any saffron was used. Methinks that tourism has made restaurants a tad too eager to take advantage of tourists–tomato sauce with very fishy-fish was served on an outside patio that featured stray cats in the bushes and at least one beggar chased off by our waiter. Stray cats and beggars were quite common in the city.

I understand that “tapas” is the proper way to eat the evening meal–strolling around various establishments sampling snack-sized portions. My mother did order tapas for her dinner and it was of higher quality than the paella. With my parents not extremely mobile and me not being a late-night person, strolling for tapas held no appeal.

The second day, rather than fight the city crowds, we opted to hire a driver. The hotel helped us with this arrangement as I had not planned this in advance–they were wonderful, as was our driver. He took us to El Torcal, a couple of hours outside Malaga. We enjoyed the scenery on the way there and on the way back. He also picked a nice restaurant in the mountains where the food was reasonably priced and of higher quality (still a lot of fried things!) We enjoyed our day out in the countryside, but be aware that El Torcal is extremely crowded on the weekends. Hiking is more like strolling a sidewalk in a busy town–lots of people. The area is well-kept and pleasant. When we left the park, we sat in traffic for at least 40 minutes while people were trying to park alongside the road. The parking went on for at least a mile and there were buses trying to get in, cars, people walking, etc.

All in all, I wish that we had eaten at least once at our hotel. It was expensive, but I suspect the food would have been good. There were two or three museums mentioned in the guide that I would also have liked to see had there been more time. Some places were closed on weekends (the bull fighting museum) at that time of year. To see a bull fight, we could have hired a driver or caught a shuttle bus to a nearby town (there were none in Malaga while we were visiting.) I wasn’t particularly interested in bull fighting (read: Did *not* want to go under any circumstances) but the hotel would have helped us find a way to see one had we wanted to find one. The fights ran about 50 euros per person and generally included some flamenco dancing from what I understand.

Posted: December 6, 2009
Filed in Spain

Spain

Planning a possible trip to Spain next year. Thinking about going in Sept or Oct. Yeah, yeah, I’ve noticed the weak dollar. My plan is to cost average in. Buy some now (well, when the dollar pretends to be strong again) and then buy a little more Euros later and so on. Or maybe by then we’ll all be back on the gold standard and I should be buying bullion. But I digress.

What I want to know today is this:

Why is it that when looking for maps of Spain, I can find them on amazon UK–that ship from the US? These same maps aren’t available at Amazon US. If I were to order them from amazon UK, I’d pay international shipping rates, pay in Euros (converted) and then the map would come from Jersey. HUH?

Posted: July 11, 2008
Filed in Spain

Travel – Malaga, Spain

malagaYou may recall that I’ve been heavily researching for an upcoming cruise that includes Rome, France and Spain. The ship ends the trip in this little place along the Spanish coast called Malaga. I perused many a Spain guide and found little to nothing helpful. Oh sure, the main guides listed Malaga along with a place or two for eating and sleeping, but details were pretty scant. Since the cruise ends in Malaga, I wanted to spend a couple of days there so that dad had a better chance to experience Spain (one side of his family came from Spain long, long ago.) There are bigger cities we could travel to with much better known monuments, museums and sights, but there’s really nothing like being able to settle in one place and explore.

Enter:
Footsteps Guides: Footsteps Through the City of Malaga

Wow, what a nice little guide. It’s full color, coated paper with plenty of pictures. It covers not just the main highlights, but little gardens, smaller museums and some interesting local history. There’s nice instructions for walking through what sounds like a delightful and quaint city. No, it doesn’t tell you the five best places to stay or eat–rather it gives you enough information to help you decide how long you might be happy exploring the city, what there is to see and how to go about seeing it. It’s not a huge guide (60 brochure style pages), but it seems to cover the territory well. There’s a nice section towards the end that discusses a local cemetery, a 1900 shipwreck and some info on famous people of the Malaga area.

This is exactly the type of guide I love. It allows me to explore the city before I arrive so that I can decide what I want to see. It ensures that I know where to go when I want a quiet hour or so at a park or garden. And with a guide like this, I won’t feel that I missed anything!

Because restaurants and hotels are ever changing, the publisher opted to let other guides cover that. I cheated though. I wrote to the email address at the website and got some very helpful hints! Maybe in the future, Footsteps will consider having a forum where people can talk about restaurants or hotels that worked out well.

I’ll update this post or post again after the trip to let you know how the guide worked out with actual use in the city. I have high expectations.

The guide is also available at: Bookdespository.com

Posted: July 16, 2009
Filed in Book Reviews, Spain
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