The most north-easterly of the ‘Fortunate Isles’, as the Canaries were originally named, only 125 kilometres from the African Continent and 795 km2 in size, Lanzarote with over 300 volcanoes is quite unique. Sculpted by the great volcanic eruptions of the 18th Century, from 1730 to 1736, the earth spat fire almost continuously, the lava buried a third of the entire island, whole villages disappeared and what had once been fertile land was covered by lava. This was the birth of the ‘Montañas de Fuego’ (Fire Mountains) – in six years of eruptions more than 100 volcanoes rose up.
Amazed to wake up to rain on our first morning in Lanzarote, the only downpour they’d had in a couple of years apparently, we decided to spend the day lazily exploring Puerto Del Carmen, one of the three main resorts on the island. It is a lively spot, with its many restaurants stretched out along the promenade. The marvellous, quieter, long, golden sandy beaches of Las Pocillas and Matagorda are lovely for strolling along, which I did most mornings, rounding the headland to the busier main beaches and coves, down to the little harbour with its seafood restaurants.
The second day saw us heading for Fire Mountains in a hired car; the island has good roads and is easy to drive around. Timanfaya, declared a National Park in 1968, is quite an experience. Winding our way to the summit the view over the lunar landscape is awesome, with dusty-red volcano cones disappearing into the horizon.
‘El Diablo’, (The Devil) is a restaurant at the very top where meats are grilled on a barbecue, over a shaft, with the heat rising from the volcano burning deep below. Intrigued by a group of people watching a man pouring water down a tube protruding from the earth, I sauntered nearer, after a few seconds water vapour spurted up at great pressure showering us all. He then proceeded to throw some brush into a crevice where it burst into flames immediately; the temperature at a depth of only 60 cm is over 400 degrees Centigrade. Gravel from the surface was handed round but it was too hot to handle. Descending by a different route, a train of dromedaries came into sight so, deciding to do the full tourist thing for once, my partner and I had a camel ride over the volcanoes, which turned out to be hilarious.
Charco Verde was our next destination. Below towering cliffs an emerald green lake lies in a volcanic crater, a black sandbank separating it from the ocean, its colour deriving from the reflection of tiny olivine stones, a semi precious gem popular in Lanzarote jewellery.
Further along the coast ‘Los Hervideros’ is a fascinating sight, pathways weave across cliff tops. Centuries of waves have eroded ebony lava into fantastically shaped arches and underwater cave, the sea seething, hissing and bubbling away just like a cauldron.
Continuing south, Salinas de Janubio, a lagoon worked as salt lakes, dotted with windmills, is so unlike the ones seen on the mainland, the black shingle beach contrasting with the white mounds of salt.
Playa Blanca is a growing resort on the southern tip of Lanzarote with the neighbouring island of Fuerteventura plain to see just a short ferry trip away. The whitewashed hotels are only two storeys high, as are all the constructions on Lanzarote and appear quite luxurious, while the seafront and quay still maintain charm and atmosphere. Close by and accessible by dirt track is the ecologically protected Papagaya Bay. A series of seven fine, white, sandy bays, surrounded by rolling sand dunes; the calm, crystal clear waters are made for bathing in. My partner tried very hard, without success, to make me believe there was smoke coming from the distant volcanoes! Lanzarote has a beauty of its own.
The villages scattered over the island have low, whitewashed dwellings where the folk traditionally make a living from the land. Incredible to see the way volcanic ashes are used to cultivate crops such as the small Canary potatoes, large juicy melons and grapes to name just a few. Each vine has a circle of black rock for protection against the wind. The humidity from the morning dew is retained, as there is very little rain and no natural water source for irrigation. The resulting wine is excellent, the local goats’ cheese is also delicious – my favourite being a semi-cured one with a paprika coating.
On the western side of the island, where the seas have stronger currents, lies the hamlet of Famara. Its unpaved streets, lost in time, minute harbour and immense windswept beach is a favourite of surfers. Driving past a ridge of low mountains that line the wide, barren valley, dozens of hang gliders came into sight.
To the north, the higher part of the island becomes somewhat greener. Mirador del Rio deserves a visit, a building designed by the sculptor Cesar Manrique, it has panoramic views of the islands of La Graciosa and Alegranza.
On the eastern coast, not far from our holiday base in Puerto Del Carmen, is Arrecife, the capital city. It has a large port, castle, fort and loads of history of invading pirates. Further north passing Costa Teguise, where the King of Spain has a family home, the volcanic rock takes on a greenish hue.
Next stop was Cueva de los Verdes, a volcanic tunnel connecting numerous caves, mostly unexplored. A guide showed a group of us around, and we finally discovered the secret, a ‘vision’ I’d heard about but that none tell… By the sea, an extension of the same volcanic tunnel, are the caves of Jameos Del Agua. An underground lake here is the habitat of diminutive, white, blind crab. It has a natural auditorium with perfect acoustics where musical concerts are held, designed and recreated once again more by Manrique. The volcano museum housed here is also fascinating.
So, back to Puerto Del Carmen and another evening out, strolling along the seafront, watching the chefs flambéing their specialties, making the difficult decision of which restaurant to enter tonight. A personal choice between a juicy steak in an appetising sauce, an awesome Lanzarote pizza with goats’ cheese and dates, and a hundred other tempting dishes… flambéed strawberries or bananas? Then on to a cocktail bar to sample another exotic drink and watch the world go by. What a hard life this is!
There are direct flights from Madrid to Lanzarote daily; check local flights from Tenerife if you’re island hopping!
Long before history was actually recorded, legends of the Canary Islands existed. Stories were told of these mythical lands to be found beyond the Pillars of Hercules in the Straits of Gibraltar, on the way to the Dark Sea. Many classical authors sited ‘Paradise’ here, ‘Los Campos Eliseos’ (Elysian Fields) or ‘Garden of Hesperides’. One of the first credible testimonies of the islands we owe to Pliny the Elder, who in the first century spoke about an expedition sent out by King Juba of Mauritius. The adventurers brought back an enormous dog as a gift. This native breed still exists today, called Verdinos or Bardinos, they are an impressive, fierce hunting dog, from which the Canaries derives its name – ‘can’ or ‘canine’. These early tales, not surprisingly, nearly always mentioned Tenerife. Known as Nivaria, due to its majestic snow-capped mountain emerging from the clouds and visible from many kilometres around, it was awe-inspiring to those ancient mariners.
The Canary Archipelago consists of the seven major island (Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma, El Hierro, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura) and six minor ones. Of these Alegranza, Graciosa, Montaña Clara, Roque de Este and Roque del Oeste, can be found to the north of Lanzarote. Grouped together they are known as the Chinijo Archipelago and are separated from the cliff of Famara by the Strait of El Rio. Encompassed within a protected natural park and marine reserve, the landscape is remarkable with volcanic cones, craters, dunes, beaches, cliffs and caves. They are rich in wildlife, especially migratory birds that nest there, including endangered species and marine life with great number of turtles, fish (particularly the tuna family) and whales.
I spent a day on La Graciosa, the larger of these isles, 27 kilometres in size and the smallest inhabited island of the Canaries. After a short trip over from Lanzarote, the boat docked at the quay in Caleta de Sebo, a whitewashed village with unpaved, sandy streets. The 500 or so villagers that live here year-round mainly make their living from fishing. We hired bikes and spent a leisurely few hours cycling around the unspoilt countryside and lazing on the beautiful, deserted, fine, white, sandy beaches.
La Isla de Lobos lies to the north-east of Fuerteventura and can be reached by boat from there or by daily excursions from Lanzarote. Sand dunes, brought by the Alisio winds, have covered the volcanic lava fields and unusual salt-water lagoons have formed. Also a protected nature reserve, with similar wildlife to the Chinijo Isles, Lobos is also visited by the almost extinct Monk Seal. The ocean is a paradise for divers with clear, warm waters. The seabed is fascinating with caves and tunnels alive with fish. The Canaries have 107 protected areas, more than any other Spanish region, and is fourth in the world for endemic flora – 600 species.
The ancient inhabitants of the Canary Islands were the Guanches. Dressed in animal skins they were apparently of enormous stature, hence tales of giants. Living isolated from the rest of the world they were not a seafaring people. This was once believed to be the remains of the sunken continent of Atlantis and the Guanches descendants of Atlantians.
Until the Spanish conquest in the 15th century little was known about these islands. In 1402 Juan Bethencourt and his men set sail from Cadiz, first landing on Alegranza as a base from which to launch an attack on Lanzarote. Much to their surprise they had a peaceful reception. The people of Lanzarote, who were tired of pirate raids, saw the Spaniards as a means of protection. Bethancourt had conquered Fuerteventura by 1408, after fierce fighting with the natives there but it was to take almost a century before resistance to the Spanish conquest was quelled on the rest of the islands. Tenerife was the last to be conquered after much bloodshed in 1496.
Exploring the Canary Islands it’s easy to become fascinated with volcanoes. Their existence is due to the movement of the continental and oceanic upper crust of the Earth and the very slow movement of the African plate – about one centimetre per year for the last 60 million years. Lanzarote for example is a shield volcano, 20 million years old, while La Palma is a stratovolcano and Pico del Teide on Tenerife is the third largest volcano on Earth. I’ve also discovered that the planet Venus has more volcanoes than any other planet in the Solar System, but that’s digressing.
Hiking over volcanoes, walking through cool Laurisilva forests, enjoying the warm winter sun on a stretch of deserted sandy beach or sitting on the ebony, rocky shoreline contemplating the sunset over the ocean, these are just a few things that make the Canary Islands so magical.
I was feeling excited as the low cost flight came in to land at Ménara airport, I’d always dreamed of seeing Marrakesh, imagining the legendary red-walled city that I’d only read about in novels or seen in those old-fashioned romantic movies.
I’d borrowed a paperback guide book on Morocco, clued up on the local info and booked everything directly online…including accommodation at a Riad in the medina. They’d arranged for a taxi to meet us because it’s complicated to drive through the labyrinth of narrow streets in the old fortified city. The manager was waiting as we were dropped off and he led the way through a maze of alleyways to a little guesthouse-style hotel hidden away behind high red sandstone walls. Our Riad, a genuine traditional Marrakesh house, with a dozen rooms on three floors, windows overlooking a shady interior courtyard and splash pool, was beautifully renovated and decorated in Moroccan style. The rooftop terrace had incredible views over the old city quarters to the unmistakable Koutoubia Mosque. Everyone was so friendly and we were given some sight seeing tips and a map of the Medina as we sat sipping mint tea.
Once a crossroads for caravans coming out of the Sahara Desert and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Marrakesh is an ancient walled city dating back to 1062. Lying at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, the red city was originally built on an oasis and is still surrounded by date palm groves.
The impressive orangey-red ramparts which encircle the old city have 20 gateways; we were staying in the southern part of the medina near Bab Agnaou, or Gate of the Blacks, the entrance to Marrakech kasbah. Map in hand, we stepped out into a vibrant world, a colourful mixture of traditions and culture.
We headed for Jemaa el-Fnaa, one of the most famous squares in Africa and the focal point of Marrakesh life. The huge market place is an authentic open air show bustling with European and Moroccan tourists attracted by the snake charmers, musicians, storytellers and food stalls. We had lunch on the first floor terrace at one of the restaurants overlooking the square and watched on in fascination. We ordered tajine, typical Marrakesh dish made with local spices – there’s a variety of delicious recipes, including chicken with lemon and olives or lamb and couscous, and the ingredients are cooked slowly over hot coals in a coned shaped earthenware tajine in which it is then served.
We strolled over to the souks on the far side of el-Fnaa, a traditional Berber market where you can buy almost anything if you have the patience to bargain hard enough. It’s like stepping into Aladdin’s Cave; an endless maze of walkways lined with stalls selling bejewelled slippers, colourful kaftans, silk scarves, intricately wrought lanterns and magic carpets!
I’d planned a route but it was impossible to follow so we just wandered through the main souk avoiding the mopeds, push bikes and carts, and found ourselves in what was obviously the wool souk with artisans at work by the doorways of tiny shops, jars of natural bright dyes on display. We watch as a man took natural wool and dipped it into a boiling cauldron of dye, another hanging the skeins out to dry and a boy weaving woollen slippers and hats. Walking on we browsed art shops with beautiful, over-priced, local paintings – my haggling skills weren’t appreciated here – and passed by the legendary carpet souk.
I was determined to find the Café Arabe, it was challenging but worth the perseverance! A European’s idea of heaven, this classy Italian restaurant has an exclusive roof terrace lounge bar. A respite from the heaving, hot streets, this was sheer luxury – cooled by a fine mist spraying from the canopy above, we laid back on soft cushions contemplating the view over the medina and enjoyed an ice cold lager!
You’ll get fairly disorientated in the souks but not hopelessly lost! You do eventually stumble across what you’re looking for, by chance when you least expect it, such as the famous sheep’s head stalls – I’ll try almost anything but I just posed for the photo this time! And invariably you end back at the main square.
In the evening dozens of popular food stalls are set up in Djemaa el-Fna and the atmosphere is even livelier. There’s an inviting display of cooked meats and vegetables on display although hygiene looks a bit risky. Moroccan tourists were crowed at the most popular places but the dishes were mainly offal, I was told.
I couldn’t leave with out sitting with the snake charmers. I had a smooth slim snake – non-poisonous I was assured – draped around my neck. My partner was horrified although, to be honest, I was more worried about the disheveled old man that had his arm round my shoulders. I watched in fascination as a cobra evilly darting back and forth at the young snake charmer crouched next to me, and I wondered if it was actually dangerous…
The Koutoubia Mosque can be seen from el-Fna at the end of a wide avenue which is lined with horse-drawn carriages. At sunset the minaret is spectacular, awesomely beautiful. Unlike other cities I’ve visited, such as Cairo or Istanbul, in Marrakesh non-Muslim visitors aren’t allowed into the mosques. I realize that a mosque isn’t a tourist attraction but I’d have loved the chance to take a respectful look inside to see the architecture and feel the atmosphere.
We were staying in a really authentic part of the Medina, away from the main tourist stretch. Going back to our Riad that evening we passed the men playing cards out on the street in front of their local “bar”, “café” or “teashop”? Not quite sure what they call them!
Next morning the narrow streets were busy with kids going to school and mums food shopping at tiny kiosks. We decided to see the nearby Saadian Tombs which were built in the 16th century as a mausoleum to bury the Sultans. It’s worth a visit to see the Islamic architecture, the mosaic tiles with floral motifs, finely worked cedar wood and stucco decoration.
Not following any set plan, we found ourselves in the Mellah (old Jewish Quarter). The unmistakable Star of David was above the entrance to the food market, so being inquisitive as usual I just had to look around. It came as rather a “cultural” shock to see live chickens being sacrificed on the floor in the aisles while nonchalant storekeepers sat back and offered to share their mint tea with us.
Back to the square we stopped for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice at one of the colourful stalls, bought some and dried fruits, and then wound our way through the souks to Marrakech Museum. Housed in the Dar Menebhi Palace, it holds exhibitions of Moroccan art. The architecture is Andalucian with fountains in the central courtyard, traditional seating areas and a hamman, the intricate tile work and wood carvings are interesting to see.
The Ben Youssef Madrasa, located to the north of the Medina, once an Islamic college, and more recently a youth hostel, is now open to the public as an historical site. Its 130 dormitory cells cluster around the central patio and pool, where we saw a TV crew filming the ornately carved cedar decoration and the beautiful Moroccan tile work.
Walking through the back streets in what seemed like the poorer part of the Medina we stopped to have lunch, a kind of minced meat tajine. Sitting by a first floor window I watched the real world passing along the red-walled alleyways, through crumbling Moorish archways, old men pulling laden carts, youths on dilapidated push bikes and women in colourful traditional attire… Vendors selling pitiful fruit and veg on a cloth on the ground and someone who stopped to buy one pathetic carrot… real life…
We stumbled across the Ensemble Artisanal which, according to the guide book, is a complex where youngsters can learn a trade… it was ramshackle, filthy, inhumane… polite, weary looking, young men were working in tiny hovel rooms, handcrafting souvenirs, metal tea sets, overlaid trays, lamps… the other face of the Medina.
Marrakesh is renowned for its mediaeval Arab baths, traditional hammams in centuries old buildings where it only costs a few coins to enter. Women and men are traditionally kept apart in the hot baths and steamy saunas, and usually there are separate opening hours for them. There are also several exclusive hammams, spas where European couples are allowed in together and you can enjoy essential oil massages, but the prices are European too!
For all the wonder of the souks, Marrakesh is not a place for bargains. I took home some bright fine silk scarves as gifts, and went to a “government authorized” health shop where I bought essential oil perfumes, local spices and natural makeup – charcoal eyeliner, reddish-brown mud blusher and an amazing green lipstick that actually stains your lips pink! I also bought some beautifully coloured decorative tajines at a larger fixed price shop off el-Fna square – on a side- street running parallel to the main pedestrian precinct where the banks, ice-cream parlours, patisseries and donar kebab cafes are located.
Returning to our tranquil retreat for the last evening, we bought bottled water and soft drinks from a local kiosk where we were greeted politely. Not once had we been made to feel uncomfortable as westerners, even though we weren’t probably clothed adequately in our sleeveless tops and Bermuda shorts. We sat our rooftop terrace haven in the cool evening air gazing over the palms to the moonlit Koutoubia.
Although on our first night, I’d been startled awake by the mosques’ calls to prayer in the early hours, but now I had succumbed to the magic of Marrakesh I found it quite comforting.
Marrakesh has much more to offer, it’s renowned for it’s beautiful gardens, centuries old mosques, and several palaces – the Badi Palace, Royal Palace and Bahia Palace are the main ones. There is also the new zone where modern hotels, commerce and trendy restaurants are located.
It’s a base for exploring the traditional villages, to see the countryside and waterfalls of the Atlas Mountains, and for day trips including a visit to Berber markets and the “Gate” to the Sahara Desert.
We’ll go back one day, maybe for a stopover during a jeep trip through the Sahara, one of my dreams, but that’s another story…
Life in Marrakech Medina – photos
QUICK GUIDE TO MADRID
If you need a change of scene but can only get away for a short time remember that Madrid is only a brief flight away from any city in Europe, and easily accessible by train or express bus from any corner of Spain. Leave your car at home as travelling round the city on the Madrid Metro is simple and the ticket pass reasonably priced. The best time to go up is on a Friday, hotels are easier and sometimes cheaper to book as business people leave the city for the weekend.
The capital of Spain is located in the heart of the peninsula, in the centre of the Castilian plain 646 metres above sea level, and has a population of over three million. A cosmopolitan city, a business centre, headquarters for the Public Administration, Government, Spanish Parliament and the home of the Spanish Royal Family, Madrid is characterized by intense cultural and artistic activity and a lively nightlife. Like any other capital city, Madrid has its own unique atmosphere and the best way to absorb this is to wander along the central streets discovering the centre’s most prominent attractions almost by chance.
The emblematic Plaza Mayor dates back to the start of the 16th century and until the last century was used as a marketplace. It was the scene of popular events, even public announcement of sentences during the Inquisition and executions, religious processions, bullfights, dance and theatre festivals. The most striking building in the large paved plaza is the Bakery house, with its colourful fresco-adorned façade. Beneath the arcades are an assortment of shops, outdoor cafes, taverns and restaurants. On Sundays a stamp market is held under the arches. Make a stop at the tourist information office here and pick up a simple guide book (in English) and map, and set off to explore this fascinating city.
Leave the square by the calle Cuidad Rodrigo, passing the San Miguel Market building, the roof supported by airy iron columns. Proceed along the calle Major until reaching the Plaza de la Villa. In these narrow streets there is an evident mixture of Moorish and Christian architecture making up the framework of what was once a medieval town sprinkled with convents and palaces. Follow Segovia street towards the 15th century San Pedro el Viejo church, which was built over a mosque and still conserves a 14th century Moorish tower. Make your way towards the Barrio de La Latina (Latin Quarters) and Cava Baja street where ancient shops and restaurants evoke the traditional flavour of Madrid. Nearby Cuchilleros street is bustling with olden-style taverns and in the back lanes surrounding Plaza Major you will find an assortment of crowded typical tapas bars.
The Puerta del Sol Gateway was once a 15th century defensive bulwark, part of a wall which enclosed the town. The former Casa de Correos (Post Office) was built in 1768 and is crowned with a tower with a clock on its four sides; the most famous timepiece in Madrid. At the stroke of midnight on December 31, the Madrileños hail in the New Year to its chimes. A marker on the ground indicates Kilometer zero from which all the country’s road distances is measured. Three historical statues adorn the plaza; a statue of Venus, the bear and berry tree which is made of stone and bronze displaying the city badge, and the third one representing King Carlos III.To the left, on Alcalá street you’ll find the Ministry of Finance, a former Customs House and good example of Baroque classicism. The head office of the Banco Español de Crédito was built in 1882-1891. The Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando was built in 1775 as a palace, remodelled in 1974, its priceless art gallery includes 16th and 17th century works by the Spanish School.
The fountain in Plaza de Cibeles, surrounded by some of the city’s most important monuments, has become an important symbol of Madrid. On the Southeast corner is the immense Neoclassical-style Palacio de Comunicaciones with its ornate stone walls once the main post office it is now the City Hall. Next to it, you’ll find the Naval Museum which displays interesting documents and relics along with ancient and modern model-ships of the Spanish Navy. The Bank of Spain stands impassively on the Southwest corner, started in 1891, it reflects neo-renaissance tendencies. The legendary Puerta de Alcalá in Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square), was designed in 1778 and used to be the gateway to the city by the Aragón road.
The Teatro Real or Royal Theatre, built by Queen Isabel II, was remodelled and inaugurated in 1997 as the opera house. Nearby is the Plaza de la Encarnación, which is linked to the Plaza de Oriente, where the 17th century Monastery of the Incarnation is found. In the Plaza de la Marina Española the Senate Palace was built at the end of the 16th century for a community of Augustinian friars. Recently remodelled it is now the seat of the Spanish Senate. Continue along Torijareet to the Plaza de Santo Domingo. Proceed on the Calle de Trujillos and turn left at the Travesía de Trujillos which runs into the Plaza de las Descalzas, where you’ll see the 16th century Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. As you come back towards Plaza de Cibeles, you’ll find the Círculo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Circle), currently site of one of the most dynamic institutions in the cultural life of the city.
By the Plaza de Oriente you’ll see the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), constructed on the site of a Moorish fortress it was destroyed by fire in 1734 and later rebuilt in 1737. Opposite the main façade is the Plaza de la Armería. Circling the Palace is the Sabatini Park and the sloping enclosed gardens known as the Campo del Moro. Joined to the Palace is the Almudena Cathedral. The Royal Palace, not currently used as a royal residence, is used for state receptions so the more important rooms can only be visited when official acts are not being held.
Gran Vía is one of the main arteries in Madrid; an assortment of grand buildings with ornate façades, large cornices, colonnades and balconies dominate the Eastern end. Rising imposingly at the interjection of the Gran Vía and Calle Alcalá you’ll see the Metropolis Building. Near the Plaza Red de San Luis you’ll find the headquarters of Telefónica, the first skyscraper in Madrid built in 1929. A little farther along, you’ll come to the Plaza de Callao bustling with pedestrians, surrounded by cinemas, department stores and shops. Separating the Gran Vía from Princesa street is the huge Plaza de España, noted for two exceptional buildings dating back to the 1950’s; Edificio España and the Torre de Madrid.
From the Puerta de Alcalá heading north is the Salamanca district, where a large number of the select art galleries are concentrated, along with numerous prestigious shops selling designer clothes, accessories, jewellery and furniture. The Spanish Parliament in the Plaza de las Cortes was finished in 1850 with Corinthian columns. On the opposite side of the street is the Palace Hotel, built in 1912. The Lope de Vega House-Museum is located on Cervantes street, an area where other renowned Spanish authors, including Miguel de Cervantes, once lived. The Neptune Fountain has a statue of Neptune standing on a chariot wielding a trident. On the semi-circular Plaza de la Lealtad is another of Madrid’s finest hotels, the Ritz Hotel, a unique structure dating back to 1910.
Buen Retiro Park is the largest and most beautiful of all Madrid’s majestic parks, inaugurated in 1632 by Felipe IV. The 130 hectares of woodland form a green, tree-clad island in the middle of an asphalt jungle. The fine gateways are located in the Plaza de la Independencia, the Calle de Alcalá, Calle de O’Donnell, and Calle de Alfonso XII. White stone figures of the Kings and Queen of Spain peep out from the avenues of lofty trees and thick bushes, and just inside the park there is a large artificial lake where rowing boats can be hired. Inside the park is the lovely Crystal Palace, made out of iron and glass, and also the Velázquez Palace, both built at the end of the 19th century and currently used for exhibitions.
Prado Museum is located in an 18th building, considered one of the most important art galleries in the world, it houses masterpieces by Velázquez, Goya, El Greco, Zurbarán, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angélico, Rubens, and Rembrandt among others.
Open 09.00 to 19.00; Sunday 09.00 to 14.00; Closed Mondays.
The entrance to The Royal Botanic Garden is beside the Prado Museum. These gardens contain about 30,000 different species of trees and plants from all over the world and were founded by Charles III.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, housed in the 17th century Villahermosa Palace, exhibits a splendid collection ranging from primitive Flemish to contemporary works. More than 800 paintings and sculptures, carvings, tapestries and other items are displayed. Open 10.00 to 19.00; Closed Mondays.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is on Calle Santa contains a permanent collection of Spanish contemporary art, as well as temporary exhibitions. It’s also the showcase of the famous painting Guernica, by Picasso. Opens 10.00 to 21.00; Sunday 10.00 to 14:30; Closed Tuesdays.
NIGHT LIFE in the city that never sleeps:
In the vicinity of the Plaza de Santa Bárbara, the Glorieta de Bilbao and Alonso Martínez, a large number of popular bars and pubs are concentrated.
The bars in the districts of Arguelles and Moncloa are generally frequented by University students and a younger crowd.
Malasaña, in the vicinity of the Plaza de Dos de Mayo, has countless old cafés and bars with live music, in addition to moderately-priced restaurants plus discos.
The streets of Paseo de la Castellana, Paseo de Recoletos and Paseo del Prado boast quality restaurants, cafés and popular night spots.
In the summer months and especially at night, open-air terraces abound in the areas of the Paseo de la Castellana and the Parque del Oeste.
Tapas are a wide variety of Spanish appetizers, and “Ir de tapeo” or bar-hopping is a popular tradition in the hundreds of bars scattered throughout the streets of Madrid.
Restaurante Botin is the oldest restaurant in the world and is included in the Guinness Book of Records. Founded in 1725, it is frequented by international celebrities. The ancient brick-arched dining room oozes history but more importantly the food is wonderful and not ridiculously priced. Specialities include suckling pig, roast lamb and oven baked hake. Situated on calle Cuchilleros.
An evening at a MUSICAL is a must. Currently showing, The Lion King is suitable for all the family. Set in the stunning fauna of Africa, this story is probably one of the greatest every told. With an international cast of more than 50 actors and songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice, the show evokes the story of Simba, through a blend of music, dance and African shapes conveyed through spectacular animated sculptures, elaborate costumes and impressive sets. At Teatro Lope de Vega, Gran Via 57.
Finally, don’t miss the Rastro, an incredible flea market with a retro atmosphere held each Sunday morning. A flood of humanity invades the narrow lanes and small plazas in La Latina district (tube station La Latina) in search of everything imaginable. When stalls fold up, around 14.00, amble along to one of the lively bars which thrive between Plazas Humilladero, San Andrés and la Paja, for tapas and a drink.
MÁLAGA, the capital of Spain’s sunny Costa del Sol and one of the oldest cities in the world!
A typical Andalusian city, Málaga is bathed by the Mediterranean Sea, still fairly untouched by tourism and, to a large extent, the passage of time. It is quite fascinating to wander around the narrow streets of the old quarters.The Moors occupied the city until the mid 15th century, after which it prospered to become one of Spain’s foremost merchant centres. This illustrious past has left its imprint on the historic centre, particularly around the Alcazaba, a fortress which dates back to 1065 and is now a fascinating archaeological museum.
During the 19th century, Málaga was a popular winter resort for the wealthy famed for its elegance and sophistication. The impressive park on Calle Alameda dates back to this era and is recognised as being one of the most celebrated botanical collections in Europe. During the winter, open air concerts are held here every Sunday.
Málaga also prides itself on being a modern city with the heart of commerce dominated by Calle Larios. This was ideal place to start exploring the city as it is surrounded by attractive small streets and plazas.
The major sights in the old city centre include the magnificent Renaissance style Cathedral with a Baroque façade which offers daily guided tours. A number of ancient churches, each with its own distinctive style, are all located within a small area. The Castle of Gibralfaro was rebuilt by the Moors and is today a traditional Parador Hotel with amazing panoramic views over the town and bay. The name comes from the old lighthouse (“faro”) which used to stand on the hill to guide vessels into the harbour and also to warn of attacks by pirates.
Spain‘s celebrated painter, Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 in the corner house of an elegant yellow-toned building on Plaza de la Merced. His birthplace was declared an historic-artistic monument in 1983 and in 1991 it became the headquarters of the Fundación Picasso. The centre has been created to further cultural activities including the promotion of contemporary art. There are several galleries showing Picasso’s work, including the 16th century Museo de Málaga (Fine Arts and Archeology museum) adjacent to the Cathedral.
As well as being a cultural centre, Málaga is also a great place to eat out. The Malagueños love their food and the bars and restaurants here are where the real social life takes place. Tapas are an Andalusian tradition and a wonderful way to try a variety of local food. The best known local fare in Málaga is pescaito frito, an assortment of fried fish, including red mullet and small sardines, best washed down with a glass of ice cold fino at one of the many old fashioned bodegas in town.
Discovering the Málaga countryside and surrounding villages was a pleasant change and contrast to the city itself.
Axarquía is just to the east of Málaga city, a rich area for its historical interest. From the sea up to the high mountain the landscape is full of contrasts and has its own identity. It passes from the relaxing Mediterranean to deep valleys, high cliffs and steep clefts. One of its acclaimed characteristics is the brightness that attracts numerous artists from all over the world. The climate is tropical throughout the year with mild winters and hot summers.
There are several different itineraries recommended to get to know the region; the route of sun and wine, avocado, raisins, mudejar (Arabic art) and the route of oil. Discover valleys full of vineyards, farmhouses where sweet wine is made, picturesque white painted villages and the Montes de Málaga Natural Park to the north of the city of Málaga, almost completely surrounding the city.
Rich in vegetation and fauna, it is also renowned for its country restaurants serving cured meats, local wines or the typical mountain dish of migas – breadcrumbs with spicy pork sausage.The Park comprises an area of abundant mountain streams, unusual landscape of hills and the small valleys which have formed between them, normally populated by pine trees, confer upon the area a special beauty rarely found in other mountainous regions. This is one of the few enclaves where the chameleon is still to be found. The polecat, weasel, badger, wild cat, marten and wild boar also inhabit the area; the many birds of prey include the sparrow hawk, mouse and snake eagles, goshawk and golden eagle.
The Route of Sun and Avocado is largely a coastal route of surprisingly unspoilt sea-side villages between Rincón de la Victoria and Torre del Mar, where the cultivation of sub-tropical products such as avocado, mango and sugar cane plantations can be seen. It crosses Rincón de la Victoria, the hamlet of Macharaviaya, Vélez-Málaga, Benamargosa, Benamocarra and the village of Iznate.
Vélez-Málaga enjoys a privileged hillside enclave, which was already appreciated by the prehistoric inhabitants. The first settlement was possibly Iberian, later recuperated by the Phoenicians, and after consolidated by the Romans and Moors. The Villa is the original nucleus of the city, with an evidently Arabic rooted architecture. Of the four doors which gave access to the city, only two remain: the Real and the Antequera. Near the first is the beautiful fountain of Fernando VI from 1758.
Ancient houses are still conserved, with three-storeys, yards, tower, archways, and roofs with large wooden eaves, probably built by people from Vizcaya and Asturias who arrived after the Catholic kings’ conquest. Among the many historical buildings to be visited in Vélez-Málaga, the most outstanding are the church of Santa Maria la Mayor, in Mudejar style, which was a mosque during the Arab rule, and the Municipal Palace, which dates from the 16th century and was once the high court and the Granada captaincy.
The convent of San Francisco is important, founded by the Catholic kings, later erected in the Convento de Observantes, which is situated in the Jewish quarters of Vélez-Málaga. The convent’s cloister is composed by Mudejar archways on the ground floor and top floors. This suburb was first a residence for craftsmen and bourgeois and later for noblemen and royal officials. There are still a few palaces and ancestral homes, such as the Plaza de las Carmelitas, and the Casa del Mercader.
There are historical references of the fort in Vélez in the 13th century which is perched high above the town. Only the tower, Torre del Homenaje, of the castle still remains commanding a spectacular view for miles around.
Rincón de la Victoria, situated just 12 kilometres east of Málaga, makes a convenient base for those who prefer sea breezes and beaches, and the relative tranquillity of an overgrown fishing village.
Rincón’s greatest asset is its lively sea front and beach. From the westernmost cliff top marked by a Moorish watch-tower, the view sweeps down the length of the sandy beach, past the clutter of blue and white fishing boats, chiringuitos (fish restaurants on the beach), palm trees and clusters of thatched sunshades towards the bustling promenade.
The sea front itself stretches from one end of the town to the other. Two popular walks are along the sea front to La Cala, and to the shrine of the town’s patron, the Virgin del Carmen, embedded in the rock at the westernmost tip of the beach. The route to La Cala cuts through the cliff-side, going through three rock-hewn tunnels which have recently been improved to allow walkers and cyclists easy access.
Apart from sea, sun, sand and succulent seafood, Rincón de la Victoria has sights worth seeing. The fortress, Casa Fuerte, is set in one of the town’s few green spaces and doubles as an art gallery. Dating back to the reign of Carlos III, the fort was built in 1733 as part of the coastal defence against English pirate attacks.
Man first settled here in the Palaeolithic period, between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago. Sites have been discovered from which a collection of tools and Stone-Age art have been recovered. The remains of Roman settlement and a third century Roman fortress are also located in the area. The Roman writer, Plinio, refers to a temple built here that was dedicated to the moon. During the 12th century the town was known as Bezmiliana.
There are interesting caves at Las Cuevas del Tesoro, the famous Treasure Caves where gold was reputedly hidden by the Moors. A series of underground caverns has Palaeolithic wall paintings, stalactites, stalagmites and underground pools. These are the only visible marine caves in Europe and are believed to be the prehistoric sanctuary of the goddess Noctiluca.
We had thoroughly enjoyed our short break and we had packed a lot of sightseeing into a couple of days but it was time to leave as home, family – and work – were waiting for our return.
Of course three days is far too short to discover everything that beautiful bustling Barcelona has to offer, especially if, like me, it’s the first time you’ve visited the city, but armed with maps and pertinent data from the main tourist information office, which is located in the central Plaza Cataluña, it’s certainly possible to see the most outstanding attractions and enjoy the lively, laid-back atmosphere.
Barcelona is an open-air museum, there are many ways to discover the city and a whole host of things to do, but riding a Tourist Bus is probably the easier way to see the sights, just buy the appropriate ticket and you can jump on and off the open-topped bus when and where it suits you as many times as wish. Three different routes criss-cross the city taking in the major monuments, historical buildings, parks, leisure harbours and shopping centres.
Taking the Metro is a time-saving economical alternative, a two or three-day combined public transport bus/tube/train ticket is ideal – whiz beneath town on the tube, once again changing as many times as you like.
Plaza Cataluña is situated in the heart of Barcelona’s old town, this huge square peopled with strollers and street musicians is Barcelona’s nerve centre, and the city’s main thoroughfares radiate from here.
Five minutes walk from the square you’ll find the Palau de la Música Catalana, a stunning jewel of the modernista era which is a World Heritage Site landmark.
La Rambla, a unique, lively and colourful boulevard runs from Plaza de Cataluña down to the port, lined with street cafes, newspaper and book stands, and interspersed with bird and flower stalls. Thriving commerce has its focus on the side streets.
Strolling down La Rambla I admired the Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house, and wandered round the traditional Boqueria food market. The Contemporary Culture (CCCB) and the Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona (MACBA) are located in the adjacent Raval district.
The medieval shipyards, the Drassanes Reials, bear witness to the splendour of sea trading and the Catalan Navy of the Middle Ages, and currently house the Maritime Museum.
The domed viewing gallery of the Columbus Monument strategically located at the port end of La Rambla commands views of the whole of Barcelona and the Port Vell, where a wooden suspension bridge spans the water to the city’s new Maremàgnum leisure complex. It’s got everything: shops, cinemas, restaurants, night-time bars and pavement cafés set against the incomparable backdrop of the Mediterranean. A siren blared as we were sauntering across to warn pedestrians that the bridge was about to be raised to allow a high mast yacht passage to the open sea. One of the highlights is the Aquarium Barcelona which takes you on a fascinating journey to the bottom of the ocean – a walk through the glass tunnel beneath the shark pool is a magic moment not to be missed.
A little further up from the Columbus Monument, turn on to Carrer Nou de la Rambla and visit Gaudí’s magnificent Palau Güell.
The Barceloneta is a traditional sailing and fishing district which is renowned for its fish and seafood restaurants. The promenade leads to the Olympic Harbour, which with over 40 bars and restaurants has become a major recreational and dining area which, together with over four kilometres of beaches, offers the possibility to enjoy all kinds of water sports.
Nearby, you will find the Parc de la Ciutadella, one of the city’s biggest parks. If you’re an animal lover, a visit to the zoo is recommended.
We caught the bus back to La Ribera district, which was the city’s hub of commerce and seafaring trade in the Middle Ages. The Picasso Museum, one of Barcelona’s most visited museums and the Palau de la Música Catalana warrant a visit if you have time. I discreetly watched part of a wedding service being held in the fine Gothic Santa Maria del Mar church then wandered through the ancient narrow streets stopping to admire the work of a group of artists who had set up stalls displaying their paintings in one of the many plazas.
Later that evening we had dinner in the fashionable El Born district – restaurants and cocktail bars have injected this area with new life whilst respecting its traditional character.
After breakfast the following morning we followed the Modernista Route stopping off along the Paseo de Gràcia to view outstanding examples of Catalan art-nouveau architecture, such as Casa Amatller, Casa Batlló and the imposing stone façade of Casa Milà (La Pedrera) – built by Antoni Gaudí, the city’s most emblematic architect between 1906 and 1910, the interior of this house, declared Patrimony of Humanity, is full of surprises.
Next on our itinerary was the Sagrada Família, the unfinished cathedral, architectural wonder by Gaudí. At the time of his death in 1926, only one of the towers had been completed. It’s debatable whether the effort of climbing up the claustrophobic, twisting turret stairway to the top of the pinnacles that spear the skyline of Barcelona is really worth the exertion (there is a lift only that would have been cheating) but the incredible views from the stone windows probably tips the balance.
The Modernista trail concludes at the surrealistic Park Güell. From here, one of the optional attractions, Tibidabo, is just a stone’s throw away. The Tramvia Blau, Blue Tram, leaves you at the foot of the Tibidabo Funicular Railway which runs to the top of the hill. The magic mountain is the ideal place to stop off for lunch and enjoy the panoramic views over the city or call in at the Amusement Park, which opened in 1900 and presently combines traditional and symbolic attractions with the most modern facilities.
In the afternoon, we visited the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic), where the remains of the Roman city survive alongside the city’s medieval buildings. The former royal palace, the Palau Reial, located in Plaza del Rei, is part of the City History Museum. Other places of interest include the Romanesque church of Santa Llúcia and the Plaza Sant Jaume, where the Palau de la Generalitat (seat of the Catalan government) and City Hall stand. Antique dealers, bookshops, restaurants, and unusual shops maintain the activity of historical district and add to its interest.
I found the beautiful candle filled Cathedral (The Cathedral of St. Eulalia), started in 1298, particularly engaging, especially the unique cloisters where a clutch of geese swim round the central pond. I lit a red candle for good luck and placed it beside the others that adorned San Pancraceo’s shrine (this saint ensures good health and work I was told). Outside a crowd had gathered to listen to a large band of musicians who were playing their instruments on the steps leading up to the cathedral and people of all ages joined hands and moved round in circles for a traditional dance. We stayed in the plaza for awhile, watching the agile impromptu dancers and several amusing street entertainers.
That evening my partner & I enjoyed a meal at the Hard Rock Café, in Plaza Cataluña, having a great time listening to live music – the place is usually packed especially on Thursday nights when gigs of up-and-coming bands are held.
On our last day, I took time out to discover some of the interesting sights further away from the city centre. The Pedralbes Monastery, founded in 1326, is one of the finest examples of Catalan Gothic art, a small community of nuns from the Order of St Clare still lives in one wing, but most of the building is now a museum which is open to visitors. Since 1993, works from the Thyssen Collection have been on view in this imposing setting.
An ardent Barça fan, I couldn’t resist a visit to the nearby FC Barcelona football stadium, Camp Nou.
Barcelona has an open-air retail thoroughfare stretching for over five kilometres, known as the Shopping Line, Avinguda Diagonal includes major shopping centres and restaurants.
My partner was really looking forward to seeing the Olympic Complex located on the Montjuïc mount, so we took the metro (line L3) to Paral•lel station, then caught the Montjuïc Funicular. Alternatively you can ride the teleféric cable car from the port to Montjuïc Castle and scenic Miramar lookout for stunning views of the city, or once again the easiest option is probably to use the Bus Turistic. Among Montjuïc Park’s many features are a series of interesting gardens which showcase all kinds of botanical species.
The Olympic Ring, the main site of the 1992 Olympic Games, hosted the opening and closing ceremonies and the athletics competitions; the Palau Sant Jordi stadium which besides holding leading sports events is used as a concert hall, the imposing white structure of the communications tower; the headquarters of the Sports University, and the Picornell swimming pools which are open to the public are just some of the attractions.
A few minutes away the recently remodelled National Museum of Art of Catalonia, housed in the impressive National Palace, brings together one of the most important collections of Romanesque art in the world. The museum also has outstanding collections of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art.
The Fundació Joan Miró, besides housing the permanent collection of painting, sculpture, ceramics, tapestries by this world-renowned Catalan artist, is fully involved in promoting the contemporary arts.
The Poble Espanyol is a full-scale recreation of a traditional Spanish “town”. It is one of the city’s main leisure venues with a wide variety of bars, shops and many craft workshops and often hosts entertainments, festivals and concerts.
On our last evening we dined at a restaurant that had been recommended to us, Les Quinze Nits in Plaza Reial just off La Rambla, not far from the Liceu. They don’t take bookings and we’d been warned that we’d have to queue outside but the wait was definitely worth it, the large restaurant had several ambiances, the food was first-class and as a bonus it was economical too! The choice on the a la carte menu was mouth-watering and I finally chose a large starter of marinated salmon, followed by delicious duck then finished off with ice-cream liberally doused in Baileys cream liqueur!
- San Lucas Fair, Mondoñedo, Spain – 17th to 21st October, 2012
The medieval city of Mondoñedo, once the provincial capital of “The Old Galician Kingdom”, has been celebrating the San Lucas horse fair around the 18th of October every year since 1248. For nearly a millennium the wild horses that inhabit the surrounding mountains from Campo de Oso to Gañidoira and the Serra da Capelada have been brought down from the hills to this small rural town in Lugo.
Driving up from the coast, following the river Masma through a green fertile valley Mondoñedo appeared, its narrow ancient streets thronging with people from all over the region out to enjoy the day. Market stalls lined the pavement selling local produce and craftware, between the usual gifts and clothes, at very reasonable prices.
Winding our way up to the fields at the top of the town the horse fair was already in full swing. I spoke to Eloy Garcia who had travelled 20 kilometres across the hills with almost 180 wild horses, his young son and his father with him; the family and livestock have made this three day trip for countless generations. Several local and even national television crew were filming the events.
Everyone seemed to be eating “churrasco and pulpo” in one of many marquees erected at the fair. Whole octopus were being cooked in furiously boiling great copper cauldrons over open fires whilst racks of pork ribs and sausages sizzled over flaming grills. Joining in this medieval banquet, we sat on a wooden bench and were served with enormous portions of this feast, eaten with homemade bread and washed down with local red wine. Unusual but delicious!
This small city has its origins in the bronze age and some remains can still be traced. Still an important ecclesiastical centre, Mondoñedo has always breathed history and culture. Several writers were born here, their favourite Alvaro Cunqueira, and musicians such as Pascual Veiga who wrote the music for the Galician anthem. The quaint streets are dotted with squares and ancient buildings, convents and churches. The magnificent seminar founded in 1573 was the first to be built in Galicia, the third in Spain, and houses an important library of rare and ancient books.
The Plaza de España in the heart of Mondoñedo is fronted on one side by the Cathedral, dating from 1219, the oldest existing in this country today. Declared a national monument it is decorated with paintings by Rubens and holds the Bishop’s Museum. It was in this square that I saw Mago Merlin, a most unusual character, being interviewed by TV Galicia. My Spanish companion seemed most impressed so I wandered over to this illustrious magician and was treated as a long lost friend by this lovely man. Trying to hide my ignorance, I learned that Manuel Monteiro Rego was renowned throughout Spain for his “good magic” and is part of Galician folklore. Once a librarian, he invited us into his museum-home where he keeps a unique collection of literature entrusted to him by illustrious friends, celebrated poets and writers. He wished us fortune and gave me some treasured verses which actually seem to bring good luck when I read them, believe it or not…
The following day a rodeo and horse riding were to take place but as reluctant as we were to miss this we had to be on our way. Our last visit was to one of the many bakeries to buy some of the famous Mondoñedo sweet “tarta” made from almonds, cherries and figs.
The surrounding countryside with vast expanses of forest, mainly pine, chestnut and oak trees is a picturesque and ideal place for endless walks and excursions. The innumerable intriguing stories that have been written, legends of the Cintolo caves where primitive remains were discovered or the Ponte de Pasatiempo bridge where the Catholic Kings had their enemies decapitated, just add to the mystery of the place. A Roman road crosses the parish as does the North Camino de Santiago from Oviedo direction.
Mondoñedo can be easily reached from Lugo well worth a visit itself, a walled city full of history and surrounded by vast, remote, sparsely inhabited forests and mountains. Also by the N-634 road from Santander to La Coruña. We’d been staying on the Cantabrian Sea coast and drove back towards Foz, a mixture of old and new, a holiday resort with harbour, river and a succession of sandy beaches bathed by cool, clear waters.
Photos courtesy of Portal de Mondoñedo on Twitter @mondonedo