La Spezia: Gateway to Cinque Terre and So Much More

I’m sitting outside, in glorious sunshine, on a 50 metre long iron bench at the La Spezia Centrale station on the Ligurian coast. La Spezia is known as the Gulf of Poets, because back in the gloomy 18th century English poets like Byron, Shelley and Dickenson traveled south to get away from rainy England and swim a bit. I can see why they came. It wasn’t raining much in Paris, and it’s not like I’ll ever feel the need to “get away” from Paris, but still. It sure wasn’t warm and sunny and blue like this.

We didn’t come straight here. Instead, from Paris we went south to Nice on the French Riviera. Beautiful city and you really should go if you have the chance. But since Nice is the big city near Cannes, St. Tropez, Cap Ferrat and Monaco, it’s a little glitzy and glamourous. Which is all good, but a little awkward when you’ve been wearing the same clothes for six weeks in a row.

What Nice has going for it is fabulous architecture, a narrow and twisty old town, a cool tram system that cuts silently through town, two amazing outdoor markets and outstanding gelato (go to Fennochio’s in the old town.)

We spent a few days chilling out in Nice, walking to a market to get strawberries, oranges, fresh peas, a baguette and some cheese for lunch before wandering around the city for the day.

Before long we’d be down at the beach, wandering along the miles long promenade, checking out the people roasting themselves on the beach and trying to stay calm among men in tiny speedos and women sunbathing topless. Sure, the tiniest speedos were worn by old hairy grandpas, and the topless sunbathers were grannies for the most part, but we were in France, on the Riviera! Just go with it, man. Time to get over the years of body image conditioning we grow up with in North America and live like a local! Well I would’ve stripped right down to my gitch for the cultural exchange, you know, if it weren’t that I sunburn easily. So I took off my socks and rolled up my pant legs to just below the knee, and strolled along the water for a bit, averting my eyes all the while.

Now here’s a marketing lesson for you all. For all the glamour you’ve seen, read, or heard about the marvellous French Riviera, has it ever come up that the long, glorious beaches are all rocks? Well they are. Miles and miles of what we’d call river rock back at home. I couldn’t believe what I was uncomfortably sitting on.

The lesson here, of course, is to Accentuate The Positive. Decades of starlets and royalty sunning themselves along the Promenade des Anglais has glossed over the complete lack of sand. And hey, even now, a few days later, I’ve forgotten it too.

On our last evening in Nice we decided to hike up one of the hills surrounding the bay for a better view of things. But I misread the map and instead of a 2km loop I went to a further hill, 3.5km away and much taller. We walked forever, up and up. At one point we counted a run of 285 steps when the road got too steep for cars. But the views from the top, both of the teenagers making out and the surrounding hills, coast, villas and yachts, were worth it. And we already had a wood fired pizza restaurant at the bottom of the hill picked out for dinner. Pizza, salad and a half litre of the local grape and we’d forgotten all about the climb up. All that was left was the amazing view.

And so, on to Italy. Our train to La Spezia required two changes, and we were late for both of them. But Italian trains are more relaxed on Sunday, it seems, so the trains were both waiting for us. One of my minor stresses with AirBnb apartments is keeping our host waiting for the check-in, so I was glad to get there close to our planned time.

(And a big highlight was sitting amongst some very, very posh folks on the train between Nice and Monte Carlo. The fellow across from me was either a Swiss banker or Benedict Cumberbatch.)

Our first impression of Italy is one of relaxed joy. First off, it’s beautiful here. La Spezia is nestled in the centre of a U shaped bay, with small mountains all around. The dark green of the trees behind, the bright, azure blue of the water in front, with colourful pink, yellow and cream buildings in the middle. Wow.

And the food is everything we’d imagined. Simple, fresh and cheap. In France, the food is excellent, but you pay a big premium for those perfect French peas or local strawberries that are placed oh so perfectly in the baskets. Here, the markets are still full to overflowing with tomatoes, peas, strawberries and the cutest baby zucchini, but you just grab a bag and dig in. And the price is at least 30% cheaper than just around the bay in France.

We stayed in a modern apartment on the other side of the train station from downtown. It was lovely, because we got a tiny chance to live like a local. The block around our apartment had everything we needed, really. A two person, hole in the wall, wood fired pizza place that sold so much of the local specialty, farinata (a thin omelette made of chickpea flour,) that they could hardly fit pizzas in the oven. A gelato shop that sold trays of ice cream to take home. A butcher/deli, a bakery/coffee shop, a specialty food shop, a fruit stand, a florist, a pharmacy and a Coop. We could pull together a picnic lunch, go adventuring, and come back for pizza for supper. It took us two days before we thought to look for a central market; they have one, and it’s glorious too.

La Spezia is the gateway to the five villages of the Cinque Terre, made famous in North America by Rick Steves and his travel shows. There’s stress on these former fishing villages due the crush of tourism, but that’s how we heard of the Cinque Terre so I’m not going to over think this. It’s beautiful, we’re in the area, and we’ll try to tread lightly. So we hopped a train to the third village of Corniglia.

Back before modern tourism hit the Cinque Terre, the villages were quite isolated. They were only accessible from the sea or via a narrow and winding trail that connected all five villages. And the villages are close enough to each other that a hiker can walk to all five villages in one day.

That’s what we wanted to do, but the first two trails between Riamaggiore — Manarola and Manarola — Corniglia were closed due to mudslides. But that still left us half the trails to walk. Once we got up to Corniglia, that is. From the train station at sea level there was a huge set of steps up to the village. Forgoing the shuttle bus, we walked the 310 steps to the village. It’s getting easier and easier to climb like this, I must say.

When we reached the cliff top and strolled into Corniglia I didn’t want to leave. Ever. In a trip where we’ve seen over a dozen of picturesque little towns, this was the new #1. The village square was full of little shops selling fruit, general store type supplies and postal services. Across the square were bars, coffee shops and restaurants tempting me inside. Narrow side streets house artisans selling wine, leather goods and paintings. There was even a gelato shop with a framed picture of Rick Steves himself.

After an hour of wandering around the village, Cindy reminded me we were there to hike, so we set off northeast toward Vernazza. It wasn’t long before we started to climb, and boy did we ever climb! The path turned into steps, then the steps turned into bare rocks. I really had to focus on each step while we scrambled up and up.

That’s another thing the guidebooks don’t really mention. This is a proper hike, not a gentle stroll through the countryside. While the trail is well marked with red and white blazes, it’s not a groomed trail as such. The path is strewn with rocks and loose gravel and can get really narrow at points, so hikers travelling in opposite directions need to take turns on the trail. But every time I’d feel like the hike was getting too hard, we’d come up to a viewpoint that took my breath away. We were perched on the ridge like eagles, high above the villages, so we could see Corniglia and Manarola behind us, and Monterosso far off in the distance ahead. And if we looked down, we’d see fishing boats and ferries out on the water. It was magnificent and completely worth the hard work of hiking up to these viewpoints.

After an hour of hard hiking, we came across a cluster of buildings, including a small bar. Heaven! I thought we had made it to Vernazza early but a sign tempered my spirits. This was the half way point! Ah well. We savoured two amply priced glasses of cold, fresh fruit juice at a tiny black bistro table at the edge of a cliff, enjoyed the huge views and warm sunshine, then continued on our way.

Vernazza is right down on the water, so we descended down, down, down to the village. While we were still well above the castle at the end of town, we encountered more and more hikers, but they seemed to go just high enough to get a selfie above the castle, before joining us on the trail into town.

We didn’t linger too long in Vernazza. It was now 1:00, and the village square was filling up with tourists who came on the train or via bus tours. I can’t imagine what it’s like here in July and August; it was crowded enough for me in mid-April. Quite the change from morning in Corniglia. We ate our picnic lunch beside the marina, climbed to the top of the castle overlooking the harbour, and found the trail to Monterosso.

Now, Vernazza is on the water. Monterosso is also on the water. So you’d think a trail between the two villages would also be along the water, right? But oh no. The trail is high, high, up on a ridgeline along the mountain that sits between the two villages. So up we climbed. Up, up, up until my heart was pounding and the afternoon sun was baking my eyebrows. It was a real lung buster, but worth it. The views were amazing once again.

This leg of the trail is much narrower than Cornigla — Vernazza leg, and the trail was more crowded too, so it was a stop/start hike as we paused to let southbound traffic pass. It took us two full hours to get to Monterosso, but we were lucky in a way. The descent into Monterosso is via the longest staircase I’ve ever seen. It was like the steps in the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. They just went on and on. But at least they were steps! The southbound hikers had to deal with the rock ledges we climbed to get out of Vernazza. I don’t think I could descend on them with the rubber legs I had now.

We congratulated ourselves on our hiking prowess by soaking our feet at the beach (what a treat!) and some extra fine gelato. Then we toodled through the village for a while before catching the train back to La Spezia, tired, sore and very, very happy.

The next day we decided to check out La Spezia a little closer. We found a nice little coffee shop where I could get a real Italian cappuccino and, further up the block, a real Italian macchiato. We found a phone store to get an Italian SIM card for the phone, then headed to the central market.

The La Spezia market is a big one. Two blocks square, with a large undulating roof over the entire complex. Everything you need is inside. Fruit stands, vegetable stands, cheese and dairy carts, butchers, florists, bakers and fishmongers. And as we’ve seen everywhere else, shops and bars and restaurants surrounding the market on all four sides. It was beautiful and once we found the market we went every day, even though it was a 30 minute walk from our apartment.

I love our Farmer’s Market at home (heck, I took bread to the market for two years at the same time I was trying to build Orange Boot), but compared to what we see in Europe, from the largest city to the smallest town, our market in Regina sucks. I already know I’m going to cry when I get home and try to shop again.

I know, I know, we live in the middle of nowhere, 1000km from BC fruit or 2000km from California veggies. But surely to God we can put a roof over our market so the food doesn’t get soaked in the rain. And put up a wind screen while we’re at it. And if I’m going to dream, run enough power that the butchers can bring raw meat and keep it cool, and the cheesemongers can do the same with their dairy products. I’ll set up my oven in the market too, I promise.

The La Spezia market is busy. Really busy. Busier than the number of people who live and work around it. I saw bus after bus drop off people with empty shopping bags and pick them up again, loaded up with produce for the next day (or maybe two, tops.) Nobody here asks “will it freeze”. They shop every day and eat fresh food and I love that.

Anyway, once we had our packs full of picnic fare, we got on the bus too and headed to the town of Lereci. If the Gulf of Poets is a U, and La Spezia is at the base of the U, then Lereci is at the end of the left arm. Our host Alice recommended the beach there, and after our massive hike yesterday I was in the mood for a mellow afternoon.

The bus ride out was a blast. We got the last two seats at the back of the bus, just before the bus was jam packed with university students. And I mean packed. They just kept getting on, handing their packs to four young ladies in the seat in front of us, then started hugging each other to save space. I’ve never seen such a crush. For the longest time, nobody got off the bus, but four more people got on at each stop. More students. An old lady with bags of shopping. Some construction workers. I have no idea how they fit or where they went. But one by one, over the next 20 minutes, the bus would stop, someone would hand over a backpack from the pile, and the bus slowly thinned out. Then it was our turn.

Lereci is beautiful. A lovely horseshoe cove with a castle at one end, a marina, and a long, curving, sandy beach that went all the way to San Terenzo, the next village on the way back to La Spezia.

We walked to the top of the castle (gotta climb a little!) and gazed out across the Gulf to La Spezia in the distance, and Porto Venere at the other end of the U. It was beautiful but also very windy. I wanted to sketch and paint up there but I couldn’t control my sketchbook in the wind, so we retreated down to the marina and checked out the shops lining the quay. Then we went for a sit at the beach and I tried not to compare the bronze sunbathers to the rotisserie chicken I saw at the market in La Spezia.

Oh, and Lereci has the best gelato I’ve had so far. The local flavour, called Lereci, of course, ticks all the boxes. Coffee, nuts, caramel, chocolate all swirled around in some basic crema gelato. Amazing. Until this point my favourite was pistachio (made with real pistachios of course) but now I’m ruined. Hopefully some other local flavour will win my heart down the road, but I’m not holding out much hope.

On our last day in La Spezia, we took the bus to the other end of the U, to Porto Venere. Another spectacular fishing village with a lovely marina, two churches and even a castle on the hill. Porto Venere is really tucked in there tight between the water and the cliffs, so that getting past the first row of houses required some serious climbing. But there were spectacular views around every corner, so we kept on climbing and being wowed.

It was getting on in the afternoon, but we weren’t ready to leave the Cinque Terre yet. Cindy had read about a big hike from Porto Venere to the first Cinque Terre village, Riamaggiore. 12km, 4 hours and listed as “moderate” difficulty. The same book said the hikes we did two days ago were “easy-moderate.” Hmmm. Well it was a nice day, we felt good and it was at least 5 hours till sunset, so we decided to go for it. We’d abandon our return bus tickets, do the hike and catch the train back to town from Riomaggiore.

Well it was the best hike I’ve ever done. Way harder than I imagined; we climbed 500m pretty much straight up, then followed the ridge line around two separate mountains, before descending through vineyards and farms to the village at Riomaggiore. As we twisted up the mountains, through forests, then out on bare rock ledges, then back into forests, we had these wild views of Porto Venere, then La Spezia and Lereci across the Gulf to our right, then the wider Mediterranean off our left shoulder, then finally Riamaggiore below us.

By the time we entered Riamaggiore we were sore, tired and grimy. But the tour buses were long gone, the village was beautiful and we saw the most amazing sunset from a brick lane above Riamaggiore’s tiny harbour. It was perfect.

I can’t imagine ever finding a place more beautiful than this. But I’ve said that every day so far on this trip and I’ve been wrong each time. I can’t wait to see what we find next.

Quick Update: I’m Having Too Much Fun To Write!

Hi. I’m writing this from the smallest studio apartment I’ve ever stayed in. We figure it’s 200 square feet, including the bathroom. Smaller than most people’s bedrooms, I bet. But it’s in the Montparnasse neighbourhood in Paris and we’ve never been happier. The power was out for 14 hours last night (just in our apartment). Didn’t care. We just went out and when we got back, lit some candles.

The last long story I wrote was about our week in Madrid. I’ll get back to those longer stories, but here’s a quick update.

We took the train to Barcelona, which is the coolest city every. My favourite on the trip so far. We went out for tapas with our new friends Gillian and Brian (Gillian is the daughter of our friend Laverne) and had a great time. Then Cindy and I walked all over the place, from the Park Gaudi, through the Gracia neighbourhood and to the beach. Then we did it all over again.

We’re done going to cathedrals because we’ve been to the best. The Sagrada Familia is still under construction (started in 1882, should be done in 10 years or so) but is so amazing, so spectacular that I’m still overwhelmed by the beauty of the place.

Bummer: on our last night in Barcelona, I walked into a coffee bar to watch the last 10 minutes of El Clasico on TV. Put my pack down to pay for coffee, took a sip, and my pack was gone. My passport was in the pack. That made things more interesting.

After going to the police department and filing a report, we continued as normal, taking the train into France. First destination was Arles, in Provence.

Arles was cold and rainy, but we had a large, warm, rustic apartment that was incredibly romantic. We hung out for a few days and took a vacation from our vacation.

Arles is a neat city because they have a Roman Arena that is still being used for bullfights, and a Roman Theatre that is being restored too. (They backed Julius Caesar.)

In Arles, we realized this passport problem was going to throw a wrench into things. I thought we could get a new one at the consulate in Nice, but I had to go to the embassy in Paris instead. Ugh. So we pulled out the map and started tweaking our plans.

After spending the morning at the huge weekly market in Arles, we took the train to Avignon, 35km up the road. And the sun came out!

We had another great AirBnb apartment in Avignon. It was a great home base to get some laundry done and eat several roast chicken meals from the deli across the street.

Both Avignon and Arles are on the banks of the Rhone River. One day in Avignon we walked across the bridge to an island in the middle of the Rhone, then rented bikes and rode the 16km around the island. We went through villages, farms, and acres and acres of orchards. The peach trees were blooming too!

We wandered around the town for a couple of days then took a bus ride out to Pont du Gard, an amazing triple decker Roman Aqueduct. The best aqueduct so far, and we’ve seen a few.

Then we took the TGV train to Paris. Aw shucks. There’s worse places to be stuck without a passport.

We’re in love with Paris! Cindy is getting weepy she’s smiling so much. The architecture. The parks. The amazing shops and bakeries and cafes.

It’s without a doubt the most expensive city we’ve ever seen, a real budget bomber, but we’re eating well and zipping about on the metro. I think we’ll splurge at one of the cafes tomorrow.

Quick note. Before we left we watched this great show “I’ll have what Phil’s having” on PBS. Awesome show. Romantic, interesting and compelling travel show. But it should be called “I can’t afford what Phil’s having”! We went to all his haunts in Paris but one (still need to find the falafel stand) and it’s crazy what things cost. His favourite roast chicken will set you back $150. Vegetables, drinks, and likely plates and forks are extra. Jeez. But we’re finding great food our own way.

The passport issue is fixed (if you pay enough fees and penalties, things get done fast, and my friends Curt and Bob helped from back home) so we’re heading back south on Thursday. Spring has sprung here, but it’s still pretty chilly at night. Time for some Riviera sun.

So you’re all caught up. We’re having so much fun and seeing so many amazing things that when we get back to the apartment we just fall into a heap. And it turns out I get motion sick on trains when I try to read or type (I thought I’d write on the train.)

But I got a few emails where people were worried, so I had to get a quick dispatch out. We’re good. Really, really good.

Madrid: The Trains In Spain Go Hurtling ‘Cross The Plain

After one more trip around our favourite street in Córdoba, which was deserted after all the Holy Wednesday festivities, we hiked back to the station for our train to Madrid. We had booked on the bullet-nosed high speed train and I was a little excited for the trip. After all the bus rides we were finally travelling the ‘European Way’. And a fast train, no less.

It was a fun ride. We were quickly up to a top speed of 270 km/h for our two hour ride to Madrid. It didn’t feel much faster than normal highway driving, except when I tried to see something outside or, heaven forbid, snap a picture. Then you realized we were passing things at a very great speed.

These plains in Spain are quite beautiful. I remember hearing somewhere they get lots of precipitation and it shows. Lots of trees dotting green pastures, with sheep and goats and later, cows. Quite honestly, it was a lot like the plains at home, except for the rocky outcroppings that dotted the landscape. And then the train slowed, we rolled past industrial areas, then apartment blocks, then we were in Madrid. We went from the train to the metro, got off at the Bilbao station and found our hotel.

[A Brief Aside]

You know, all these cities are old and romantic and beautiful. But like all cities it seems, they continue to grow, and there isn’t the investment in aesthetics anymore. We passed mile after mile of the same ugly, tiny windowed, balcony-less brick apartment blocks on the way into Madrid and they looked like a sad and dreary place to live. Compared to the centre of Madrid, it was shockingly horrible.

As late as the 1920’s, Madrid was still doing strong city planning, as witnessed in the glorious Grand Via. But that seems to have stopped in current times, outside of the centre of the city. Which is a shame. And totally consistent with home, although it doesn’t feel like we do much planning in the centre at home either. But the centre of Madrid is glorious, so let’s go back there now.

Our pension for the next five nights was the Pension Antonio, on Calle de la Palma. It was tiny and spare but quiet and clean and centrally located, between the Royal Palace to the east and the Prado Museum to the west, with lots of bars and restaurants and stores in between. It was just fine and cheap enough to recommend to others, although be warned that the last two blocks to the apartment feel pretty sketchy to walk down. But that’s just the prairie boy in me reacting to the corrugated steel grates in front of the closed shops and the excessive, monotonous, ugly graffiti. I like Banksy and all, and some businesses pre-empted things by hiring an artist to spray paint their doors in advance, but holy crap it’s just endless here.

One of the good ones!

I think the biggest thing that hit me about Madrid is that we were in a really big city. Really big. I looked it up and Madrid’s population is 3.5 million people, which makes the largest city we’ve been to by far. You could tell the difference. No narrow, winding streets here. Instead we had long, grand boulevards, with six lanes of cars and huge fountains and statues in the roundabouts. And masses, and masses of people. Even when we were out looking for something to eat at 9PM, the sidewalks were packed with people doing the same thing.

We were in Madrid for Easter Weekend, which meant that some of the stores were open irregular hours, but most all of the bars and restaurants were open. And boy oh boy are there ever a lot of bars and restaurants! I’ve never seen so many places packed that tightly before. Every single street was packed with places big and small. We found a really good sandwich shop on Calle Pez and a gourmet pizza place nearer Bilbao station and lots of bakeries and fruit stands to keep our backpacks stocked up. But there were more than enough people to keep them all going.

Too fancy for us

Mmmm…that’s more like it!

The long weekend and fine weather meant everyone was out enjoying their time off, so we loaded up our backpacks and joined the fray. We walked west toward the Plaza d’Espana, with its huge foutain at one end and massive statue at the other. It’s a very impressive square, surrounded by regal offices and fancy hotels.

The normal circuit has one walking left to the Royal Palace, but we went right to walk through a fine little park. We were surprised to see a stone temple on a hill in the middle of the park so went up to take a closer look. I assumed it was a Roman temple, but when we walked inside there were Egyptian hieroglyphs on the wall. What? We went looking for a pamphlet to figure out what we were seeing.

The Temple of Debod is a real Egyptian temple, but in Madrid. When the Egyptians built the Aswan Dam in the 1960’s, many ancient temples and tombs were submerged. This temple was dismantled and moved to Madrid instead. Very interesting, but a little out of place.

Near the temple was a gondola that gave rides to a large nature reserve right near the heart of the city. The line wasn’t too long this holiday morning so we took a ride over. The views back to the city centre were amazing and the park itself was very nice. Lots of bikers and joggers running up the hill that we rode to.

And then we went to the Royal Palace, along with twenty thousand other people. The palace was quite nice but it was a real crush of people, so we hung back a bit and wandered through two statue filled parks that surrounded the palace.

We kept up the park theme the next day, Good Friday. We hiked east from our room, behind the Prado Museum and the National Library to Paque de El Retiro. This huge space is where thousands upon thousands of Madrilenos go on their days off and this war, sunny spring day was no exception. We started at the formal north end of the park, with formal gardens and a large man-made lake. There were dozens of rowboats on the lake and a very long line of people waiting to rent one. We walked around to the east side and watched the boats from a large plaza, complete with lion statues looking over the boaters.

From there we strolled past two smaller palacios and another formal garden which contained Madrid’s oldest tree (planted in the 1650’s.) But I was mesmerized by the “cabin for the association of retired men”, a rustic wooden lodge with a few dozen old fellows playing chess on the patio.

Madrid’s oldest tree

The south side of the park was more informal, with lots of benches and grassy slopes just begging to be lied down on. So we did, after eating our picnic lunch. We deserved a rest; we’d been walking a long, long time.

A long block of used book sellers, just outside the park

Even though we love toodling through parks, Madrid is home to some excellent museums and it didn’t seem right to ignore them. The Prado Museum has free entry from 6PM – 8PM so at around 5:30 we went looking for the entrance. There was already around 100 people in line, but it looked manageable, so we queued up. We were at the side door, and it wasn’t long before our line bumped into an even longer line for the main door. There must’ve been 2000 people in all, at least. It was huge!

But the thing is, the Prado is even huger, and we all fit in with no problem and, aside from the ‘big 3’ paintings, there wasn’t even a crowd. Sorry, no pictures were allowed, but it really was a fun time. We had a New York Times article outlining the preferred order to see the museum’s highlights, which we followed and really felt like experts. My favourite paintings were by the Dutch Masters – we went through that gallery twice.

The other big gallery, the Reina Sofia, is focused on Cubist and Surrealist paintings by the likes of Picasso, Dali and Joan Miro. But I was there for one painting: Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica”. It’s fair to say that “Guernica” is the reason I wanted to go to Madrid. It’s a massive painting, a protest painting for the bombing of women and children during the Spanish Civil War and I am so very happy I got to see it live and in person. It was even better than I thought it would be. (Although, I was very surprised that I didn’t enjoy the Dalis more.)

A picture of Guernica, via the Internet.  Photos aren't allowed in the gallery!
A picture of Guernica, via the Internet. Photos aren’t allowed in the gallery!

I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War, other than Franco won, the Germans tested their arms in Spain prior to invading Poland, and Hemingway was there. The “Guernica” gallery helped me learn a bit more about it. The painting was commissioned by the Republican (in power, but lost the war) government for the 1939 World Expo, to help raise awareness of what was happening in Spain, and hopefully get some assistance. In the gallery, there was a replica of the pavilion where the painting was first shown, along with posters of the time and other reflections on the costs of war.

There was also a very interesting display showing Picasso’s progression as he worked on the painting. His partner at the time was a photographer and she took a series of shots of this massive mural during its development. There was also a room full of ‘post script’ paintings where Picasso continued to develop the themes within the painting. Fascinating stuff.

Atocha Train Station

Between parks, art galleries, the classic Atocha train station and strolling down wide boulevards admiring the architecture, we had a wonderful few days in Madrid. We found a tiny square near our room which we adopted as ‘our square’, since it had the perfect combination of restaurants, ice cream, coffee, newsstands and bookshops. It even had an art supply store! So it seemed like we ended up at our square at least once per day, at least to end our day with coffee and hot chocolate.

Easter Sunday was a big thrill for me. Before we left Cindy told me about the Sunday stamp market in Plaza Mayor so even though it was Easter we decided to see if it was on. And boy was it ever!

Plaza Mayor is the classic town square of Madrid. It’s completely enclosed by four connected banks of buildings but the open square inside is huge and holds thousands of people. Usually the square is full of tables from the surrounding restaurants, and they were still there. But on Sunday’s there are also 50 or so tables full of stamp, coin, postcard and bottle cap dealers out selling their wares. And since it was Easter Sunday, there were also a few thousand people in the middle of the square watching the final Easter procession of the season. All drummers putting on a show. So the square was loud and boisterous and I loved it.

I spent an hour wandering around the tables, regretting I didn’t collect Spanish stamps. And regretting my suitcase wasn’t big enough to start collecting Spanish stamps! But I bought a set as a souvenir that would fit inside my notebook for protection and left it at that. Big fun.

On our last day in Madrid we walked down to the train station for a day trip to Toledo. After four days in this massive, crowded city we needed some space. Toledo is a beautiful old walled city, perched high on top of a hill with great views of the surrounding valley, just 70km from Madrid. We were there in 30 minutes by train and had a wonderful afternoon climbing the hill and once again wandering through narrow, twisting streets.

But the thing I’ll remember most is the nature trail we found that went around the base of the city along the river that passes Toledo. We spent an hour or so walking along the river, watching the fishermen and the couples necking on benches, with sheer rock walls across the water to our right and the walled city above us to our left. And then, because we had time, we hiked back up to the city, up the incredibly steep stone staircase that passed through the walls, for some gelato before walking back down and across the river to the train station.

Córdoba: Processions, Patios and Pails of Snails

We had tickets on our traditional noon bus northwest to Córdoba, but first we had to get out of Granada. On our walk yesterday, we walked west, away from downtown, and away from the tourist area, into a regular neighbourhood. There we found a delightful neighbourhood pastelaria, with great coffee, a bin full of oranges for juice and pan integral (whole wheat bread) for toast. Now all we had to do is find it again.

Technology is a double edged sword. That little black box in my pocket, playfully named Big Black Olaf, is crucial for finding our way around the narrow, twisting streets of medieval European cities. Paper maps just don’t cut it; the streets are smaller than the names, making them impossible to label properly. But Big Black Olaf, along with the app, can get me anywhere, and can get me back there again. But only if I pin the destination.

And that’s where the trouble began. We had such a delightful time yesterday, but I forgot to pin the location on the map. So this morning, all we knew is that it was “west” and about a kilometre from our apartment. Past that big fountain with the plaza running “south”, but before the large park with the running track and old men playing bocce.

But was it before, or after, the university residences with raised gardens full of rosemary and walls full of political graffiti? What about the roundabout with tapas bars we were at last night? Surely it’s not that far away!

So we walked, and walked, and squabbled a little. When we tried to piece together our walk from the day before, we came up with two completely different orders. And I’ll admit to you, like I admitted to Cindy on the day, that I’m not at my best without my morning coffee. So I caused a scene and we had a spat and then we looked up and there it was, across the street. Argh. I got my coffee and Cindy got her juice and we bought make up toast and four make up sandwiches for the bus ride and then quietly walked back to the room to get our bags and get on the bus for the bus depot.

The ride to Córdoba was smooth and pleasant, helped along by the sandwiches and Spanish Gravol. Outside, the landscape was beautiful. As we came out of the mountains, the miles and miles and miles of olive orchards gave way to gently rolling hills and wheat fields. Wheat fields! It was a sunny day and the wheat was already well along, creating a bright green carpet that popped against the bright blue afternoon sky. Gorgeous. was in a good mood today, and picked a walking route to our guest room that passed through two parks. No major freeways for us! So we had a delightful walk to our room and for the first time, arrived feeling upbeat about our surroundings. (So far, our locations needed a day to grow on us.)

Our guest room for the next three nights was in Manuela’s house and it was a real treat. We had a huge, elaborately decorated room and a very large tiled bathroom with double sinks even. There were so many statuettes and icons around the room, so many armoires and dressers and side tables, so many tablecloths and doilies and other fabrics that we put our towel underneath our suitcases lest we get anything dirty. Perhaps the decor was better suited to an older couple, but we had a ton of space and Manuela was very nice. I think our Spanish was improving because our charades went more easily as we learned about all the keys and locks and how the doors work. We could even share pictures of the snowstorm back home and agreed things were better in Córdoba.

Our room was about 1km outside of the main tourist area and that’s a very good thing. We kept discovering tiny fruit shops and cafes and gelaterias down side alleys that didn’t even have signs out front. You couldn’t tell they were there until you walked down the alley, so of course we walked down all the alleys and made sure we found them all. But wow was it tight. I measured our street, and wall to wall, including two ‘sidewalks’ and the road, was eleven feet wide. When a car came down the road we hugged the wall and hoped for the best.

When we felt claustrophobic, we’d walk two blocks to a small thoroughfare with wider sidewalks and more shops. This was our breakfast street every day. Friendly people, big glasses of orange juice, tiny glasses of strong coffee and tostadas. I discovered the local custom of spreading puréed tomatoes on my toast instead of jam and it was lovely.

Further down this street is the main square. Bars and restaurants ring the outside with City Hall in the middle. Then we turned the corner around City Hall and found Roman pillars! There were the remains of a Roman temple right beside City Hall! Amazing. While not as complete as the temple in Evora, it was still quite spectacular and a big surprise.

Most of the main square was blocked off for Easter processions, so we turned left and headed down to the Mesquita. It’s a Mosque/Cathedral that is the centrepiece of tourism in Córdoba, but for now we just walked around it, through the winding alleys of the Jewish quarter and headed to the river.

Córdoba is situated alongside the Guadalquivir River, which makes it a very strategic city, ever since Roman times. The Romans built a beautiful bridge across the river right near where the Mesquita now stands and as it was gorgeous evening, we strolled along the bridge for almost an hour, watching the ducks in the river, looking at the remains of windmills from Roman times, taking photos in the amazing evening light and watching the thousands of fellow tourists doing exactly the same thing. It was the start of Easter Break, so we saw our first busloads of high school and university students on a tour of Spain. It added to the overall energy level in the place, I guess.

While there is still city on the other side of the bridge, there isn’t a whole bunch, so I could still see the rolling hills and green wheat fields in the distance, which warmed my heart.

We continued our stroll along the river then headed back to our neighbourhood to find a place for supper. Just like in Granada, we stumbled across a crowd in front of one of the cathedrals, filling the whole plaza / intersection. Easter procession! So we hung out for a while, tried to chat with our neighbours, watched the children having fun and watched the police try to re-route traffic, including a massive tour bus that clearly made a wrong turn at some point. And then, just like Granada, the crowd dispersed before anything happened. Procession’s suspended, someone said. Ah well.

This tiny place makes one thing only. Potato Chips!

The next morning, we took care of business. It was laundry day, so I googled the nearest laundromat and we headed away from downtown, 1km across the train tracks. It’s another one of those big differences from Regina. At home, walking to a public laundromat, 1km across the tracks, is a scary bit of business. Sea Spray laundry at home isn’t a lot of fun and certainly not a place I’d want to hang out. But boy were we ever surprised in Córdoba!

First, we had to cross the tracks. But we couldn’t find the tracks! Rather than the ugliness that splits downtown Regina and the Warehouse District, here they built a hill over the tracks, so the trains ran underground from the station to the outskirts of town. And on top of the hill, they built parks! And planted trees, and installed sculptures and fountains! It was gorgeous and something we totally need to do at home. I’m forwarding pictures to my city councillor and I encourage everyone who reads this to do the same.

Promenade over the train tracks. Wonderful!

And I don’t want to insult Sea Spray Laundry, but this laundromat was gorgeous. Spotless. Self Service. With automatic soap and softener dispensing so we didn’t even need to buy soap. So we loaded up, set a timer on the phone and went for a walk around the neighbourhood. It was so pretty. Just your friendly neighbourhood shopping district, with butcher shops and fruit shops and fish shops and pharmacies and banks and anything else you’d need. Friends meeting on the corner to say hi. Children out for a walk with their grandparents. We wandered around with our mouths open, staring at how awesome it all was.

Our imagined need for private, detached houses with big yards at home means there just aren’t enough people to support this level of commerce in a neighbourhood. At least that’s what the real estate folks keep telling us. But these blocks of four story buildings with apartments and offices above stores on the ground floor sure look good to me. And everyone seemed happy enough. And Manuela’s apartment is huge too. Massive even. Bigger than I need, that’s for sure.

And oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Córdoba is full of courtyards and inner patios! One of the reasons the streets are so narrow is to maximize courtyard space. We walked by some beauties. They have an annual ‘patio walk’ in Córdoba, similar to our ‘Secret Garden Tour’ at home. I’d love to see that.

That evening, on our way to supper, we came across another procession right near our room. And there were purple hats too! This one actually happened and it was quite a bit of fun. The crowd was smaller than in Granada, but still big enough to make us find an alternate route to supper. We’d learn to call this a small crowd before the week was out. But as we drank wine and ate tapas, we watched the TV and got a hint of the fervour these processions cause all over Andalucia. The TV had pictures from Seville, Malaga, Cadiz, Huelva, Granada and Córdoba, showing crowds and processions getting underway all across the region. Then it cut to the sad news from Brussels, about which I’ve already written.

Finally it was time for our tour of the Mesquita. You can get in for free between 8:30AM and 10:30AM, so that’s exactly what we did. Along with 500 other people who got there earlier than we did. No matter though, the Mesquita is massive. 5000 people could be in there and it wouldn’t feel crowded.

The site has an interesting history. First there was a Romman temple on the site. After the Romans retreated, the Visigoths built a Christian temple on the site. When the Moors conquered Spain, the site was split and Christians and Muslims worshiped side by side. Then in the 8th century, the Sultan in power bought the Christian half and built the largest Mosque in Western Europe on the site. Then, with the Christian re-conquest in the 13th century, a huge cathedral was built inside the Mosque. That is to say, the entire building is a cathedral, but the Christian bits have been added to the Muslim bits. So the whole structure looks rather odd. Muslim architecture but Christian icons, with a Gothic cathedral in the middle.

It’s odd and overwhelmingly spectacular at the same time. We spent two hours looking up and taking pictures that in no way portray the grandeur of the place. Because it’s an active Cathedral and not a museum, there’s very little mention of the Muslim antecedents of the building. However there is a section at the back that has been left in it’s original Moorish state. Plus there is a display of some remains of the Visigoth temple in one corner too. It’s a shame, really, because there is so much layered history here that an interpretive pamphlet would really make the history come alive. There are private tour groups that do this; might be worth your while when you visit. Or read up ahead. Or just enjoy the majesty of the place.

We were getting tapas’d out. The effort to interpreting Spanish menus and coming to decisions on what was or was not octopus was tiring us out. And that time I went to what I thought was a coffee shop on the plaza but learned they sold pails of snails really freaked me out. So for supper on our last night in Córdoba we decided in advance to head to the Jewish Quarter beside the Mesquita and find an Arabian place with couscous and chicken tajin. It was Wednesday night and we thought we’d be relatively safe from Easter procession crowds. Boy were we wrong.

The easiest way to Mesquita from our place is to go down our little ‘main street’, through the town square, then turn left and head down to the river. But our main street was packed; we could see Mary heading off down the road towards a church. There was no way that would work.

So we took a left and tried to get ahead of the parade. If we could get ahead of the first purple hoods, it was polite to cross the road. So we leaped ahead of Mary’s procession and got to the town square, but that was even more jammed. Jesus had already made it to the town square. So we went further left, parallel to the parade route, until we reached the river, then backtracked and got to the Jewish Quarter.

We started looking for a restaurant with couscous and tajin (by that point I was actually craving couscous) but soon realized we were deep into the tourist zone. Too many English menus. Too many burgers. Too many cocktails. And the crowds kept growing and growing. Finally, after an hour of looking, we found a place with couscous on the menu and a table for two just inside the door. We ducked in and tried to ignore all the English being spoken around us.

Soon we couldn’t hear the English for all the drumming. Another procession was passing right beside the restaurant! Right by our table, in fact. I pushed outside and grabbed a few pictures between courses.

For a “TGI-Couscous” this place wasn’t too bad. We paid and plotted our course for home. There was still a huge crowd at the restaurant. Too big to cross. But the Mesquita was behind us. If we went the long way round the Mesquita maybe we could find open road.

So we headed out along the south side of the Mesquita and after a while turned right, into a huge crowd of spectators, hooded processioners and a full band. Another procession! They hadn’t really started, so we crossed the street and tried to pass along the crowd on the left. That didn’t really work, so after a block we ducked down a side street and tried walking parallel to the procession again. We got stuck 1/2 a block from the intersection. Just solid people, and too far away to see the procession anyway.

I muttered to Cindy, “the Christians are pushing us back to the river!”, which was happening, albeit unintentionally. But that gave us an idea. We headed to the river, away from our room, then walked along it until we were at least eight blocks past the Mesquita, the town square and even our little “main street.” Then north, then back and safely home.

In all, we saw four different Mary floats and at least three Jesus floats, eight bands and five different colours of hoods. It was quite a night. But my favourite thing of all was the little kids collecting wax balls, drip by drip, from the candles carried by the hooded folk. And the hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of people, from the very young, to the very old, eating sunflower seeds along the parade route. And by morning, how it was all swept up so there was no way of knowing the processions even happened. But they did. And it was amazing.

Granada: Hints of Arabia in Andalucia

We left Seville with a touch of sadness, a feeling that will no doubt be a part of many departures on this trip. It was off to the bus station for a 3-4 hour trip east and south to Granada.

Granada is one of the three jewels of Andalucia (the others being Seville and Cordoba) and is the most remote. Well, remote isn’t really accurate, since Granada is a major city and tourist destination, but it is the last major destination still to be served by high speed trains. We passed the new track, still under construction, several times on the trip. But for now it was buses and that was fine with me.

The landscape along the trip was dramatic once again. Gone were the orange orchards of Portugal and western Spain. Now it was miles and miles of olive trees, stretching as far as we could see in all directions, through rolling hills and gently twisting roads. Every once in a while, we’d see an especially tall hill. In those cases, there was always a cluster of white walled houses up the side of the hill and a castle and walls on top. I scanned the distant hills for knights on horseback but could never pick them out.

As we got closer to Granada we started to climb. Bare rocky outcrops thrust out of the ground. First a single mountain, then a group, and then we were fully in the mountains. Granada lies in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and as we pulled into the city we could see snow covered peaks off in the distance. I learned that there’s quite a nice ski resort off in those mountains, even though it was 15c in the city.

Our room for the next three nights was the barest of the trip so far. It was basically a spare bedroom and access to the bathroom, in the house of Rafa and David, two young artists. They were very nice, the room was warm and the bed comfortable, and the location, right beside the main cathedral, was excellent. Even though we didn’t really see them very much, we didn’t feel comfortable hanging out in their house. So we were out on the street from morning till bedtime most days. When we came back to our room to dry off and warm up, we were often visited by their skinny black cat, who quite enjoyed my backpack for some reason. I have claw marks as a souvenir.

Granada is a very interesting city in that it was the last stronghold of Moorish (Muslim) rule in Spain. When the Christian crusaders invaded the Iberian peninsula around 1200AD, they came from the north and conquered cities like Seville and Córdoba, but took much longer to get south and east to Granada. In fact, it seems like there was acceptance of joint rule of the area for a time. When we were in Seville, I read of a palace in the centre of the city where the ruler hired artisans from all over Spain to work on the building, including Muslim artisans from Granada.

Evidence of Muslim/Arabic culture is throughout the city but is especially strong in the Arabic quarter, a ghetto of narrow, hilly, twisting streets close to the main avenues. The area is full of tea rooms, hookah lounges and stores selling gorgeous glass lamps, leather goods and silver tea sets. We went to eat in this area twice during our stay, grateful for the delicious vegetable couscous and clay bowls with chicken tajin. But our big discovery was the array of delicious tea in these restaurants. Sweet, creamy concoctions with all kinds of spices. Our favourite was called ‘sol y nieve’, a strawberry and cinnamon tea with a mountain of whipped cream on top. It was an excellent after dinner selection that I fully intend to make at home somehow.

Leaving the Arabic quarter we strolled along the river, along cobblestone plazas full of restaurants and bars. Then we turned left and began to climb up a very steep hillside until we came to a lookout with great views of the city, the main cathedral (right by our room) and the fields and mountains beyond. And a spectacular view of the jewel of Granada, the Alhambra. This amazing palace, castle and garden sits high on the hill on the other side of the river, looming proudly over the city below. It was the last stronghold of Muslim rule in Europe and we were going to tour it tomorrow. But for now, we just looked across the valley and admired the grand structure.

A communal oven!!

Because the Alhambra is a major attraction, the authorities control how many people get in each day. They accept 6000 visitors per day and you can buy either a morning ticket or an afternoon ticket. And each ticket has a specific time where you can visit the Nazrid Palace, the high point of the trip. So on the bus ride into town, we bought ‘morning’ tickets for the next day, with a 1:30PM entry into the Nazrid Palace. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were very lucky. All tickets for the entire weekend we were in Granada were sold out by the time we went to the tourist office to pick up our tickets, three hours after we booked them!

In the morning we grabbed an early breakfast and hiked up to the entrance of the Alhambra, trying to get a jump on the tour busses. It was a steep hike, but thanks to a tip from the lady at the ticket office yesterday, we did all our climbing at the start. We begin the tour at the Generalife Garden at the high point of the grounds, and strolled pretty much downhill from there. The massive formal garden was built as a place for the sultans to relax when life in the palace got too hectic. So long as we paced ourselves well between the Italian tour and the Japanese tour, we could get a sense of the tranquil nature of the place. I also got a thrill looking at the vegetable gardens that were neatly laid out on terraces below the formal garden. After days of orange-red or white soil, it was nice to see some deeper colour in the ground.

From the gardens it was a nice stroll through a tiny village within the walls. There were some restaurants and souvenir shops but also a small shop where two men made very elegant and ornate boxes, platters, chess sets and backgammon boards. The were all intricately inlaid with different types of wood and then heavily lacquered. They were gorgeous and priced to reflect the hours of work that went into each piece. Beautiful but outside my budget, alas.

We walked past a small, nondescript building then backtracked to read the small sign and finally went in. I’m glad we did, since the building was the remains of a hammam, or Muslim bathhouse. It was a cluster of small rooms with curved doorways and with start shaped holes cut through the roof to let the light in. Deep, dark and mysterious.

Then we were into our first example of the layering of history. When the Christians finally defeated the Moors in Granada, they took over the Alhambra complex and started converting it to a Christian palace. The first addition was a large cathedral in the middle of the site. Later it was followed by a massive palace, built for King Carlos V, in the middle of the main square. Our guidebook mentioned that the palace has divided opinion over the years. It’s either an excellent example of 18th century architecture or an abomination in the middle of the Moorish aesthetic. Well, it doesn’t look like anything else around it, that’s for sure.

There’s a pattern evolving here that is interesting and a little sad. It’s one of conquest and re-conquest all over this part of Europe, but is really apparent with structures like the Alhambra. Romans – Goths – Moors – Christians, and in the case of the Christian re-conquest, a need to rework the architecture to get rid of, or at least downplay, the Moorish influence. And then there’s Napoleon. When the French invaded Spain they used the Alhambra as a barracks and nearly blew it up in the end.

This comes up again and again in this region. When the Moors are conquered their architecture is changed, then Napoleon comes and nearly wrecks everything. Then, thankfully, someone recognizes the historical (and touristical) importance of these treasures and they are restored and a ticket office put in front. And I don’t mind the ticket offices one bit because these are beautiful, beautiful places and deserve to be restored and celebrated.

Getting back to the Alhambra, it was the American Washington Irving who is credited for opening people’s eyes to the amazing Alhambra. He lived in Granada for a while after Napoleon left and the Alhambra was falling into disrepair. His writing about the place inspired the restoration work. Hopefully this writing inspires you to visit.

The final tour before our time in the palace was the Alcazaba. This castle / walled area was the oldest part of the complex and afforded more incredible views of the city as well as the lookout we sat on last night.

As we stood in line we met a foursome from Ontario who were travelling through Spain in the reverse order we were, but they were driving the whole way. I was amazed and a little dumbfounded, especially as they told me about taking wrong turns through the centre of Seville. Why anyone would choose to drive through these places when you could walk or take the transit is beyond me. They also told me they booked their tickets to Alhambra over a month ago, so I guess we were lucky to get ours the day before!

And then it was our time to visit the Nazrid Palace. What a stunner. It was more elaborate and ornate than I imagined, but subdued too. When I think of a palace I think of precious metals or gems (I’ve not seen many palaces, but that’s what I think!) but the Nazrid is amazing for different reasons. It’s more about the artisans that built it. Every square inch of some walls are covered in ornate plaster carvings and Arabic script. Some ceilings have even more elaborate plaster domes, giving the impression of a starry night. Other halls had domed ceilings of stretched leather, which was then painted into elaborate patterns. The palace tour was an incredible climax to an already amazing tour of the grounds. It’s well worth the trip to Granada to see.

Our last full day in Granada was Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week or Semana Santa in Spain. The entire week is a huge holiday in Spain, a combination of mourning and partying at the same time. The week starts off with a big procession, mourning the death of Jesus and Mary’s sorrow. We had heard about these processions and were very excited to see one in person. Although, truth be told, it was a bit of a mystery as to where and when the procession would happen. Many of the central squares had been blocked off and large sets of bleachers installed, but as the day went on an we walked around the city, we never saw anyone sitting in the bleachers.

Then at around 4pm, we saw more and more people heading off in the same direction, away from the bleachers, so we followed along. Soon we came to a different cathedral, with hundreds of people packed tight around the cathedral doors and sort of making a path down the block. I say ‘sort of’ because there’s no such thing as an orderly line in Spain. But it seemed possible that we had made it to the procession route. Laughable attempts to communicate with the man standing next to me confirmed that the procession would start at the cathedral in about an hour. We had stumbled on front row seats!

As we stood there, more and more people squeezed past us, even though I was sure there was no way more people could fit in this square. Our colourful Canadian outerwear must’ve screamed “This Way Through” because everyone seemed to pass beside or between us, even if we linked arms. A gaggle of teenage girls. Teenage boys with the most incredible Justin Beiber pompadours. Mothers with strollers. Old men with walkers. I’m not kidding.

And then it started to rain. Out came 1000 umbrellas, or in our case, up went hoods. We would’ve stayed dry except that, without umbrellas, we were in the drip line of all our neighbours. Then slowly people started leaving. The procession was suspended, for how long nobody new, due to the rain.

We were disappointed, but also wet and cold so we went back to our room to change clothes and warm up. We were just about to head out for supper when we heard drums and horns and followed the music to the main cathedral. There it was! The procession! We hurried over and found a place to stand behind a pair of strollers.

Even though the procession is supposed to be for mourning, the entire event is quite the celebration. Everyone is dressed up, especially the little children. Vendors with carts selling drinks, candy, snacks (especially sunflower seeds – everyone was eating them, from the schoolchildren to young women to the elderly), balloons and toy drums lined each street. There was a huge amount of anticipation as we waited for the procession to pass.

It really was quite a production. First, several dozen marchers disguised in robes and pointed hoods, carrying candles. Then a huge “float” of Jesus, carried by 20-25 young men, hidden underneath. The float was so heavy that every few minutes they’d have to set it down and have a rest, or trade with other men who followed the float.

Behind the float were ladies of all ages in black mourning dresses and vails, followed by a marching band. Whenever the float was in the air, the band played. When the bearers rested, the drummers kept time. It was a very slow, solemn procession.

The floats were so large that it was a real challenge to navigate through the narrow streets. Turning corners was especially dramatic. The bearers took two full minutes to slowly rock back, forth and forward to shimmy the huge float 90 degrees. When the job was complete, the crowd clapped and cheered in appreciation as the float headed off down the street.

A few minutes later, a second procession came by. Hooded figures, then an even larger float of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by dozens of large candles. It was very dramatic in the twilight.

And as the Mary float made its way around the corner, we left the crowd and went in the opposite direction to find some supper. Our time in Granada was coming to an end. It’s a beautiful city. The mix of cultures and traditions is very interesting and the history, like everywhere else we’ve been so far, is thick. I just want to sit down with some history books and really get the background on these places. But we keep moving on. Time to pop a few Gravol and head to the bus station…

How Do You Leave A City Like Sevilha?

We bid a fond farewell to Portugal in Tavira and climbed on the ALSA bus to Seville. There are no trains between Portugal and Spain this far south, so a four hour bus ride was required. But the ALSA buses are comfortable and they have electrical outlets between the seats so all was good.

We’ve been getting pretty good at these 3-4 hour bus journeys by now. A perfect travel day starts with a 7:30AM alarm. Shower, pack and head off for a breakfast of coffee, orange juice and toast (tostas or toastadas.) If we like the pastelaria we are in, we’ll buy a couple of sandwiches to eat on the bus. Otherwise, we’ll stop somewhere else on the way back to our room.

Once in our room, it’s a quick bathroom break, then pick up our bags and head to the bus station. The perfect departure time is 12 noon, so we aren’t rushed. Then we arrive at our destination by 3 or 4 pm, which is plenty of time to find our room, meet our host, and go for a first walk around town. Especially with Spanish time, this gives us a half day in our new town. Although our hosts think we’re crazy to waken before 10AM for any reason.

The bus ride into Spain was quite an adventure. We were stopped at the border for over 30 minutes. Inspectors came on board, looked at us sternly, then took the driver off for a while. No passports were checked, but when we stopped for a break in Huelva, a Norwegian passenger I was chatting with said the border inspectors were upset that there were not fasten seat belts signs on the back of every seat. Our bus only had them every six inches and on the window. So the driver was fined 300€ on the spot.

There isn’t much of a change in landscape between the eastern Algarve and western Andalucia, but there is a change in agriculture. The orange orchards are replaced by mile after mile of plastic hoop houses. We were too far from the fields to make out what was growing under these greenhouses, but the plants looked happy. With the spacing of the plants my best guess is that they housed young orange trees.

After the tranquility of the Algarve, entering Seville was a big culture shock. We exited the bus station on a massive eight lane road, completely jammed with cars, people packing the sidewalks and city busses buzzing by. And the app gave what seemed like crazy directions to our apartment. We left the busy boulevard soon enough, and seemed to be directed around in circles, twisting and turning through progressively narrower alley ways. At one point we even went through the inner courtyard of a row of buildings, or so it seemed (to be fair, there was a street sign on the wall leading into the courtyard.) But suddenly we popped out into a delightful little square ringed with food shops, walked down a busy street with sidewalks narrower than our suitcases, turned left and were at our apartment.

It was heaven. Pure heaven I tell you. Seville is the most amazing city, and if we hadn’t agreed in advance to visit other places I would still be there. I don’t think I could see it all in twenty years. Our flat was right near the Plaza Alfalfa (ah, memories of home) and if I never left the square I would still be happy. There were no less than three pastelarias on the square! I know! Plus three restaurants, a charcuterie place, a pharmacy and a playground in the middle. Then in the block between the square and our flat, there was a killer artisan bread bakery (also with coffee, orange juice and amazing pastries), two killer tapas bars (one so small and so constantly busy we never did get a table), a fruit market, a mini super market, and a florist. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit.

This fellow rides his motorbike to restaurants to sharpen the chef’s knives. The sharpener is on the back of his bike

The corner right by our apartment. In the foreground, Cindy’s favourite orange juice / gelato stand. Then a market. In the distance, the best bread bakery. Beside me, out of the shot, is a cozy tapas bar. Plaza Alfalfa is directly behind me.

The streets in Seville, at least in the central area, are very narrow and winding. We were continually getting lost, walking for an hour then popping up at Plaza Alfalfa again, or ending up at the Cathedral when we thought we were heading away from the Cathedral. But the great thing is that every single street, and I mean every, single, street is beautiful and interesting and packed with beautiful people. Sevillains (as we called them) are extremely fashion conscious and yet again we felt like frumpy foreigners around them. Had we wanted to, and had the 1000€ it required, we could’ve changed our look in an afternoon. The streets were lined with the most fashionable shops imaginable. Beautiful, colourful, stylish dresses and more suits, in more colours, than I have ever seen. There were many, many specialty clothing stores just for kids too – you can never start too young in Seville.

Sevillians hate this modern structure over a new plaza, but I like it.

The problem with Seville is that it’s tough on photographers. Everything is just so bloody big, it’s impossible to get things in the frame. Seville’s Cathedral is the largest by volume in the world. It took over 100 years to build and let me tell you, it’s a big ‘un. It took forever to walk around, and would have even if the streets weren’t clogged with tourists. Big, gothic and gaudy.

Seville was the richest city in the world for a time, and it shows. When the Spanish colonized the Americas, Seville was awarded the contract to administer all the wealth coming from the New World. Ships laden with riches made their way up the Guadalquivir River to unload at Seville. So the city is full, and I mean full, of palaces, cathedrals and statues. The University of Seville is also right downtown and the main building is full of marble halls surrounding a massive courtyard.

But for me, the most opulent structure in the city is the Plaza de España in Maria Luisa Park, and it’s rather new. The park itself is huge and right downtown, full of statues and fountains and trees and formal pathways. But the Plaza is simply massive. Built in 1928, the plaza is a massive semi circle of connected buildings with a canal in the middle. Bridges connect the centre of the plaza and the outer ring, over the canal. Around the outer ring are a number of alcoves with scenes of Spanish provinces done in tile. We didn’t know anything about the plaza before we stumbled on to it, and let me tell you it was quite a surprise.

Most of our time in Seville was spent wandering the streets, looking in shop windows, eating picnic lunches in parks, eating tapas in the evening and generally getting lost. One afternoon we took a pedestrian bridge across the river to the suburb of Triana. At the base of the bridge on the Triana side was a wonderful indoor farmers market (perfect for picking up fruit, bread and Jamon Iberico for our picnic) and a park beside. Lunchtime!

The streets of Triana are laid out in a grid, and it seems when the Spanish have room for a grid, they also have room for extra wide plazas. A massive roundabout at the base of another bridge forked into three wide avenues, one of which was pedestrian only. We walked for at least a mile from the roundabout to a fountain at the other end of the plaza, window shopping and finding the perfect gelato along the way. The street was full of happy people, most of which were locals enjoying the sunny afternoon.

Very cool bread delivery bike

We did more window shopping in Triana than we planned, since it was now 3pm and we were fully into the afternoon siesta time. Most shops in Spain close in the afternoons. They’ll be open from 10AM – 1:30 or 2pm, then close until 5pm or 5:30. Then they’ll stay open till 8 or 9pm. So we gazed in the shop windows and thought of how much money we saved.

But the plaza didn’t empty. Oh, no. The stores closed but the bars were entering into their busiest time of the day. Along the plaza and the side streets were tiny bars full of people, standing shoulder to shoulder and spilling into the street. Businessmen, old ladies, moms with strollers, construction workers. Everyone. And they all had a glass of beer or wine in their hand and a small plate of tapas on the table. Sardines, olives, cheese, ham. Heavenly.

We opted for a gelato stand and sat out on the street, watching the world go by. Then we made sure to get a little more to eat too; after two days in Seville we had learned that we wouldn’t be eating supper any time soon. You see, the bars and cafes are for little bites only. For supper you need a restaurant. And restaurants don’t even open until 8pm! The bar/restaurant combo places close from 6-8 too, so make sure you aren’t hungry during the Canadian supper hour, or be sure to pack a snack.

We were enjoying the local areas more than the tourist areas, so in our last day in Seville we headed in the opposite direction from our beloved Plaza Alfalfa toward the Alemeda de Hercules. Legend has it Seville was founded by Hercules and this long, wide Avenue celebrates the legend. It took us a while to find it, but the avenue was worth the hunt. Two tall pillars stand at either end of this long pedestrian walkway, with people walking down the middle, cars along the outside, and shops and cafes the whole way along it. It was a smaller version of the Avenue de Liberdores in Lisbon, and not as chic, but we loved it.

Then we walked back down toward the river, around the bull ring and back toward the Cathedral for the evening. Our waiter at breakfast had recommended some places to eat and hear flamenco. We had a long night ahead.

Our first stop was a restaurant near the Cathedral that offered a private flamenco concert in the back. A drink, tapas and front row seats. This was a professional quartet; a man playing guitar, a young woman and young man who danced, and a matron (who was in reality quite young) who sang. It was an amazing show. Lively, exciting, colourful and full of passion. We were blown away. It was a wonderful show in an intimate venue, but it was quite polished compared to what we saw next.

Our second stop was a small bar closer to our apartment. We nearly missed it. There was a tiny sign over the door that was difficult to notice, but the fact that people kept going in two by two was a hint that something was happening. But inside was empty. Just a grizzled old man in a heavy wool sweater, tending an ancient fireplace just inside the door.

We walked past the man and turned down the hallway, following the faint sound of guitar. Then we came into a large, low room, more like a garage out back, with long benches filled with people and a bar off to the side. Flamenco music and male singing was coming from somewhere in this mess but I couldn’t see where it came from.

Then we found it. Over in the corner, where only a few people could really see, were three men. They were all seated. The oldest man was about 60 and he played guitar. The man in the middle was younger, say 40 years old and sang. And the man on the left, small, clad all in black, with a pony tail and beard like in a tequila ad, clapped, chanted, then got up and danced.

They played and danced for 20 minutes or more, while people jockeyed around them for a better view or jockeyed to the bar for another drink. Where the first show was polished and electric, this performance was dark and smoky and passionate. We were swept away by the romance of the whole thing. I should be back there still, sweeping floors, washing glasses and listening to that haunting music.

But I’m a family guy at heart so after the performance we left that bar, arm in arm, and just wandered the streets of Seville one last time. It was getting on to midnight now and we started thinking about finding our way home. But then we’d see some people on the corner and would wander by to check out that bar. Or we’d hear music and head down to the next corner. Finally we heard more guitars and more singing, and walked down one more block to a square with three restaurants beside each other. In front of the middle restaurant was a long table with a dozen or more men, all with guitars or mandolins. It looked like a meeting of a local guitar club and they had decided it was time to play.

I don’t know how long they had been playing before we got there, but they played for an hour longer at least. One man would sing. One would play a solo. Everyone sang the chorus, with gusto. A few men would come out into the gathered crowd and ask women to dance. Another passed the hat and bought beer for the players wth the proceeds.

And it seemed like it wouldn’t end. One or two men would pack up, then 10 would perform a song. The lead singer would come back out from the bar for one more song. Then there were 8 players, then 6, then 4.

Slowly, oh so slowly, the mini-concert ended and we wandered back to Plaza Alfalfa, wishing we could stay in Seville forever. Get cleaned up, buy some fashionable clothes, get jobs in a pastelaria and spend our nights singing and dancing and holding hands in a plaza we never knew existed before and may never find again.


We’re fine. But I’m a little spooked.

We were sitting in a cafe in Córdoba, Spain, having a late lunch, when the TV cut to the bombings in Brussels. As you no doubt know, two bombs went off in Brussels and if I can read Spanish properly, the authorities found a third that failed to go off. Many people dead. In southern Spain, according to the news at least, people are worried.

It’s the height of their Easter festival here and I would assume it’s prime time for something nasty to happen. Although, personally, I’ll be more worried when we head north in May.

It’s ‘the day after’ as I write this and things seem normal here, although there are a lot more police patrolling the cathedrals and main tourist areas this morning. We toured the Mosque/Cathedral this they checked our bags before we went in. There were three Muslim fellows in front of us in line and I’m sad to tell you that they made me a little nervous. But I guess that’s what happens when anyone could have a bomb strapped to them.

The men made some other tourists nervous too, mainly with the pictures they were taking. Two tourists talked to security, who then spoke to two police officers (who were walking around with their shotguns out) who then spoke to the Muslim men. We watched for a while as they police gave their papers a very good look. One of the Muslim fellows spoke good Spanish (thank goodness) and had a long, calm conversation with the police officers. We left before it ended but it appeared that everything was going to be OK.

So it’s not a good time to be Muslim and walking around in Europe. Or from what I’ve read, the USA either. I don’t know about Canada, but I assume it’s not much fun at home too. And I get it, I guess. But there’s something that’s sticking in me, especially because all this is happening when we’re in Córdoba, where the main attraction is the Mosque/Cathedral. After the Roman’s left, this piece of land was a Cathedral in the time of the Visigoths, then a shared Muslim/Christian space, then the largest Mosque in Western Europe, then a Cathedral only. All with a span of 1300 years. Recently, Muslims have been trying to get access to the space to pray again and the Christians aren’t going to let that happen any time soon.

My point being that all sorts of people have lived in this land for many, many hundreds of years. Some times one group is in power and the other are suppressed. Then things change and another group is in power. But always someone in power, someone gets the short end. Roman, Visigoth, Muslim, Christian, Monarchist, Republican, Fascist, Republican. It doesn’t matter. Somebody wants to get rich and can justify taking things. Then we justify keeping things, and fearing ‘the others’ until someone comes and takes it from us. It’s true in Spain and it’s true in Saskatchewan. And it makes me sad.

We’ve been walking around a very beautiful city this morning; beautiful specifically because of the mix of cultures who have built this place. And all I can think about is fear and hate.

All I can think about is whether humans are doomed to always fear or hate ‘the others.’ And whether we are doomed to be ruled by someone, be it a warlord, King, President, MP, MLA or CEO who gains and keep power by playing on those fears. And what would it take for us all to really, truly, live and let live.

I don’t know. We’ll keep on travelling, with our eyes open, and with our hearts open too. And I’ll try really hard not to get nervous just because the guy beside me looks different than I do.

PS. More light hearted travel fare tomorrow.

Algarve #3: Chilling Out In Tavira

Imagine if you will: Driving around the southern coast of Portugal, sampling some of the most fantastic beaches in the world; subsisting on oranges, strawberries and dark chocolate for most of the day; arriving in the eastern Algarve town of Tavira and parking in the first lot we could find (as is our habit); then trying to book a guest room for the next three days on your smartphone. By the time we had finally secured a room, it was late, my stomach was growling and I was sunburnt and worn out from all the driving and cliff climbing. So then imagine heading out to find dinner, turning the corner and seeing this:

Nothing like a beautiful square, Roman bridge over a still river and a narrow street lined with restaurants to get your blood flowing again!

While the kids all take bus tours to Lagos to party the night away, mellow baker couples book into a guest house in Tavira for three nights and stroll around the town square and along the river. And that’s exactly what we did.

Our guest room was huge, with a balcony overlooking the Main Street and a large table to sit at. We had a shared bathroom and kitchen area but we were the only people in the entire guest house for two of the nights, so we had more space than we needed. The bed was firm and the WIFI was fast. This room will be the benchmark for many weeks to come.

My love hanging out in our amazing room in Tavira

For our first meal in Tavira we relied on our guidebook and the first “single dollar sign” suggestion was Churrasqueria O Manel and it did not disappoint. The specialty of the house is Piri-Piri chicken; Manel’s been grilling it up, over charcoal, every night for over 30 years. We spoke with his daughter who said he developed the recipe from his travels in the Navy as a boy and let me tell you he knows what he’s doing. We gorged ourselves and the next night picked up a bit takeaway for supper at the guest house. Yup, we ate at the same place two nights in a row. It was worth it.

We never ate at this place, but it was always full. It was the English pub and lots of English like to fly to Portugal for shepherd’s pie, I guess.

Tavira gets a lot of tourists and we had our first experience with ‘tourist pricing’ on the trip so far. Our usual breakfast, coffee for me, fresh orange juice for Cindy, and two pastries typically costs between 5 and 6 euros. But it was 10 euros on Tavira’s sunny square. It was fun, but I’ll take the tiny bar in a side street pastelaria any day.

Eating here is fun, but will cost you!

The east side of the Algarve doesn’t have the tall cliffs like the southwest coast. Instead, the coast is all marshland and salt flats. They do a nice trade in sea salt in Tavira and area. But they do have beaches, you just need to take a boat to the far side of the lagoon. In the high season there’s a ferry right from the town square, but since this was winter and only a sunny 20c, we walked 2km to the outer ferry station to catch the hourly ferry to Ilha de Tavira. We had plenty of time to make the 11 o’clock ferry, but we decided to check out the market on the way and cut it a little close. We had to cover the last 1100 metres in exactly 11 minutes or wait an hour for the next ferry. We just made it, we walked on just as the pilot cast off from the dock. All it took was, as Cindy calls it, walking with purpose. I tied my loose shoelace on the other side.

The market that almost lost us our ferry ride.

The beach at Tavira was excellent, but completely different than the high cliffs and heavy surf of the west coast. Ilha de Tavira is a big sand dune, 11km long and up to 1km wide, with a long, uninterrupted sandy beach on the ocean side.

These fellows worked hard, but didn’t catch very much this day

We walked and walked along the beach, but there wasn’t really that much variation, so we headed back to the section near the ferry station and sacked out on a pair of lounge chairs. We were just about finished the lunch we had packed when a man came by and told us the chairs required payment. Who knew? We apologized, blamed our Canadian-ness and left in a hurry!

Ahh…very nice. For a short while.

The rest of our time in Tavira was spent hanging around the town square and getting caught up in the rhythms of the town. We did laundry, watched a 5k run for cancer research, painted pictures in the park, and ate lots of gelato.

On Sunday we heard a band playing off in the distance and saw a crowd gathering, so we wandered over to see what was going on. We got caught up in the first Easter procession of the season in Tavira – bands, town officials, church groups, Boy and Girl Scouts and two large floats went throughout the town, stopping at several stations along the way to the Cathedral. The stations were really interesting because they were permanently set up. The doors were opened just for the procession, but they are there on the street the rest of the year. But if you weren’t from the town, you’d have no idea what was behind the wooden doors.

One of the stations throughout the town

Tavira is a wonderful little town and I highly recommend visiting, especially if you want to relax for a few days. It was the perfect way to end the Portuguese leg of our Great Adventure.

From Tavira, we got on a bus for the Spanish border and the delights of Andalusia. But we really, really loved Portugal. Great sites, great food and wonderful, friendly people, from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon to the tiniest villages of Monchique and Odeceixe. We loved every minute in this beautiful country and can’t wait to visit again. There’s so much more to see. We could’ve stayed longer in Lisbon. We never made it to Sintra, or even Setubol and Troia. Not to mention the northern cities of Porto and Coimbra, or the ruins at Conimbriga, or the Duoro valley. There’s another long trip in there, for sure.

Algarve #2: Beaches, Beaches, Beaches. Plus, a very interesting bakery.

After a wondeful evening in Odeceixe, we slept very well and slowly got packed up to continue our trip down the west coast of Portugal. It was Saturday morning, so we figured there must be some pastelarias open even in a village as tiny as this. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a Paderia (bread bakery) sign on a side street, however.

You need to check every side street. Magic awaits!

The inside of the bakery was very small but the shelves were full of bread, buns and croissants. I had my morning coffee and pastry and tried, in my best Portuguese, to explain that I was a baker and their bread looked very good. I made some sense, because the clerk called over the owner (who spoke very good english) and she invited us next door to the bakery.

The owner’s mother, a delightful elderly lady who only spoke Portuguese gave us a tour of the shop. Two huge mixers, a big work bench, and a massive deck oven. The bakery was spotless; the bakers came in at 8pm Friday night to do the baking so by 10am Saturday, all the work was done.

Then she surprised the heck out of me. She took us around the side of the oven and showed me a room with wood stacked floor to ceiling. The deck oven was wood fired! There was a small firebox beside the deck oven which held the fire. I don’t really know how she regulated the heat, but I think the fire heats a boiler and the oven is heated by circulating hot water (you can buy gas fired ‘steam tube’ ovens in North America.) Still, I don’t know how they could adjust things in a wood fired oven that large.

And then we were back on the road, heading south along the coast to Arrifana. It’s an area that came highly recommended by the lady at the Faro tourist office and it did not disappoint in any way. We parked high up on the top of a cliff, far too scared to drive down to the beach, then walked along the top, through a small village, to a point overlooking the Atlantic. Sheer cliffs and broken rocks were all around us, with the surf pounding the rocks below.

It looked dangerous and it was. We saw a steady stream of locals walking and driving north to the edge of the cliff. When we looked out past them, we saw a rescue helicopter and two boats alongside some particularly nasty looking rocks. We couldn’t make out their objective, but the helicopter flew so low, and hovered for so long, that I’m certain they were performing a rescue. After 20 minutes or so the helicopter left and the locals went home. I hope whoever they were helping are alright today.

Then we went down to the beach, along a narrow, twisting road with three switchbacks and a steady line of camper vans and surfer dudes. Arrifana is a surfing hotspot it seems. There were surf lessons going on at one end of the beach, and a stream of fit and sexy surfers along the rest of the beach.

The view of the beach from the point. Time to get down to the water!

We didn’t surf, but we did walk along the beach, wade into the water and marvel at the cliffs around us. This beach especially was extremely shallow close to shore, so we could walk out a long way without getting to wet.

After an leg burning hike back to our car, we drove for an hour further down the coast to the very tip of Portugal and the European continent, Cabo St. Vincente. It’s the western most point in Europe, and if I looked really, really hard in the west I’m sure I could see New Jersey. Perhaps not. But we scrambled over the rocks as close to the edge as we dared (we were still very high up above the water) watched the fishermen bobbing violently in their boats near the cliff walls, had a nice conversation with two travellers from Minnesota, then headed east, back into Portugal, to another beach we had passed on the drive to the tip.

I’m not exactly sure of the name of our final beach of the day, but it was just east of Cabo St. Vincente. It didn’t seem possible, but the water was clearer, the surf was livlier, and the cliffs more spectacular than any of the beaches we had been to so far. Perhaps it was because the hike down was steeper and more treacherous than any other; no cobblestones here, just irregular steps with many of the rocks broken away. Or maybe it was because there were no more than a dozen people on the entire beach. But it was thrilling, and we dawdled along for over an hour here.

At the very end of the beach, were the sand, surf and rocks met, there was a little cave that we could just get to without swimming. It opened into a huge cavern, open to the sky above. We imagined that this is where we could hang out if we were abandoned on a desert island. We’d survive in the cave, until the tide came in at least.

And then it was one more hike back to the car and a final push along the highway. Through Sagres, Lagos and Portimao, stopping beside the highway for another bag of oranges. East past Faro and Olhao, and on to our final stop in Portugal, Tavira. Here the guidebooks, Cindy’s research and the Faro tourist office lady all agreed – Tavira is a delightful place to finish a tour of the Algarve. But that’s for another post.

A Temporary Photo Fix

Hello from Spain.  The last two posts have been missing pictures.  I hesitate to blame technology (heck, 12 years ago you’d all be waiting for me to come back and process the films) but I’m blaming the technology.  It’s gotten too good for the type of posting I’m trying to do.

The Picture Plan

For the foreseeable future, here’s how the blog will happen.

– I’ll post stories about the trip.  Some long, some short little snippets.

– I’ll also bulk upload a selection of pictures to a special gallery in my SmugMug photo sharing account.

– I’ll link to the gallery at the top of the post.

The pictures in the gallery will be roughly sorted into the same order which I talk about things in the post.  But they won’t likely have a caption per picture.  Sorry.

Here’s two galleries to get you caught up with the last two posts:

Gallery for “Evora: Step Back.  Step Way Back.

Gallery for “The Algarve Has Been Logged.   You Must Visit Anyway.

Technical Details For Those Who Care About This Sort Of Thing

Here’s some detail for the geeks in the audience.  I won’t feel bad if you stop reading now.

The blog is built on a self hosted WordPress site.  I’m writing my posts on a new iPad and posting whenever I have access to Wifi.

I’m using the official WordPress iPad app to post.  I’ve tried posting straight from the Safari browser too and still get the same problems.

The problem, as I see it, is that the image files from my new iPhone and Cindy’s new camera are just too big to upload to my self hosted site.  Whether I upload the images from the WordPress app or the Safari browser, and whether a bulk ‘add media’ operation or from the post editor, the upload hangs up before it is complete.

However, I can upload the files to SmugMug with no problem.  OK, it takes forever, but it works so long as I leave the iPad alone for an hour per post.

If I resize the images and reduce the file size, it works.  But there’s no automatic resize capability with Apple Photo.

I bought a 3rd party app to do the resize, and it works, but individually resizing each photo, then getting back to the WordPress app, finding the space in the post, loading and embedding the picture, etc. Is just taking too long.

I spent over 5 hours on my Estremoz post alone and we were almost in Spain before I had time to finish it and post it.  At this rate I’ll be home and Christmas will come and I’ll still be posting about the trip.  Cindy and I want to see new things rather than sit around uploading photos.

When I get home, I can quickly resize the photos on my PC, or just upload them to WordPress from my computer/proper internet connection.

The only other change I could make is to see if my server has a file size restriction that I don’t know about, which may be causing the issue.  Ie, don’t allow uploads of more than 2mb from Europe.  But that’s unlikely.

The Smugmug solution doesn’t give an awesome reading experience.  Having the pictures in the right place in the post is better.  But at least this way I can stay more current and people can see pictures too.  I know Cindy’s mom wants to see more pics.  So that’s one person anyway, and a pretty important person at that.