The city of Valencia wasn’t even on our radar when we were thinking of cities to visit in Spain. When we realized that our chosen destination of Benidorm on the Mediterranean coast was a soul-less overbuilt tourist trap, we got onto Googlemaps to view the area to the north, searching for a new destination. From overhead, Valencia looked interesting; it had a big port, a huge beach with a long and wide boardwalk, and, most intriguing, a long winding park that ran through the center of town. We found a good apartment near the port, and booked it.
It turns out this long winding park is the old River Turia. In the 50’s the river flooded the city, so they diverted the entire thing to flow around the city to the west.
The dry riverbed was turned into a 7 mile long, quarter mile wide park filled with pedestrian and bicycle paths, playgrounds, sports fields, and gardens. At the south end is the the most ambitious and impressive collection of museums and performance centers. They call it La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias. The buildings are impressive to look at, and are surrounded by shallow pools and stunning tiled walkways. The Opera Hall looks exactly like the Jetson’s house from our childhood TV days. The entire “campus” of pools, museums, walkways and promenades were all designed by Valencia’s famous architect Santiago Calatrava. After all these weeks of wandering around structures and ruins from the past, it was a shocking and brilliant change to wander through environs that seemed too futuristic to exist today. We felt like we were in a movie set or green screen. The photos are impressive, but as usual, they do them no justice. The scope and scale of this space is something we hope many of you can experience some day.
Valencia is a very flat city, and it is a very bike friendly town with bike trails and bike sharing programs throughout the core. This was the perfect place to get the SLO Lerners on wheels! We signed up for the bike-share for the week, and rented a smaller bike for Eden that we could easily take up to our flat in the evenings. Each day, we would just walk down the street to the nearest bike station, type in our personal code, and take a bike out of the rack. We then had 30 minutes to ride anywhere in the city before either dropping our bikes off at another station, or just checking it in and re-checking it out to continue on our way. The 30 minute time limit was sometimes annoying, but the stations are everywhere. I must say that traveling around the city by bike made this city my favorite so far (ah, but part of my heart will always belong to Porto…). The Turia Riverbed park was the most delightful creation (would you believe they first considered putting a freeway through the space!!?!) and we rode, played or ran through it every day of our week here. The community certainly uses it too; We haven’t seen so many runners since we left NYC, and families were out in force at all the playgrounds or on bikes together. Every field had a fútbol game going on, and there is even a permanent cyclocross course in the northern section of the park (Ben only cried for a minute or so upon seeing a race going on Sunday)!
We bought a package of tickets to visit some of the sights. We rode our bikes over to the Oceanogáfic, which is just like SeaWorld, where Eden was chosen to help direct and pet the dolphins. We rode our bikes over to the Hemisféric, which is a glass domed IMAX theatre. Then, on our last day, guess what?! We rode our bikes again, this time over to the large skeletal glass Science Museum that rivals San Francisco’s Exploratorium. The best part about all of these family Field Trips is the fact that we are in Valencia in December. That means we have the entire place practically to ourselves! We have seen photos online of this place in the summer, and I don’t think we would be able to navigate bikes in the crowds. Instead, we just put on our Crayola Coats and gloves and breeze around like we own the entire place. Our photos are picturesque without strangers in them. There is never a line nor a crowd to complain about. Now this is tourism I can handle!
After an active 10 days and 5 cities, we were ready for a long stay to relax for a while. We had hit many spots throughout Southern Spain in Andalucía and La Costa del Sur. We thought a week at the beach on the Mediterranean Coast would be just the thing. We found an apartment in Benidorm just a block from the beach and headed northwest from Granada. We had a beautiful drive through the mountains with many amazing views of the cave homes in southern Spain. When we arrived in Benidorm, however, our week of relaxation did not start off well. We met our host and took the lift to the 9th floor. She apologised that she had not changed the sheets and handed us a bag of sheets still in the packaging (not washed!) and walked us through the flat. We weren’t paying close enough attention, and said good-bye. Only then did we realise that there were only two clean towels, but 3 dirty ones hanging in the bathrooms, with dirty sinks and toilets along with that! We turned the heater on to warm the place up, and immediately tripped the fuse. We turned off as many lights as possible, flipped the fuse switch, and tried the heater again, this time at a lower setting. Tripped again! After two more tries of this, the heater stayed on for a good 5 minutes, finally warming the place while we put sheets on the bed and searched for cleaning supplies to clean the bathrooms. We began to put groceries away when we noticed that the dishes drying in the rack were dirty too! Then boom, darkness again. This time the fuses were all still on, but there was no power in the entire flat. We were fed up and in the dark; dirty bathroom, dirty dishes, dirty sheets, dirty towels, no power, no heat!! We picked up our still packed bags and left. We can laugh about it now, but at 10:00 at night, we weren’t laughing. We went to a hotel nearby vowed to pay more attention at check-in!
Fortunately, our night in the hotel helped us realise that the city of Benidorm is just a bad case of tacky Vegas on the Spanish coast. The place is so overbuilt and filled with tacky bars and souvenir shops. There was no soul, and certainly not many Spaniards there. We felt lucky that we got out after just one night. We had to pick a new destination, and fast. We needed a place that afternoon! We looked on the map, and thought the city of Valencia looked interesting…
My Family was somewhat relieved that our reservation to visit one of the most beautiful attractions in Europe was put back one day because it gave us more time to study up on the palace. The 13th century Moorish castle was ingeniously built with heated water (also used for pressurized showers) and invasion protecting zig-zag doorways which put all invaders at an extreme disadvantage. We studied up all night about the magnificent fortress and then slept in ‘till ten thirty, when it was time to head out. The SLOLerners roamed the streets of Granada until 14:00, when we hiked up the hill where the Alhambra was perched. We were greeted by a friendly security man who guarded a very old gate to the palace gardens, and then walked up a beautiful ascending trail full of autumn trees and mini waterfalls. As we arrived at the main gate, a view of three very differently aged buildings filled our eyes. There was a fairly large 16th century rectangular palace of Catholic style in the center of the grounds. It had really beautiful stained glass windows and an amazing interior courtyard. To our left was a huge 12th century fortress with a clearing in the middle. Inside was a footprint of the labyrinth of military barracks that used to be occupied by the Moors. To our right was the original castle; the main attraction of the Alhambra. A 13th century intricate palace designed with peaceful water fountains and white marble covering almost every surface. Most inside walls were decorated with beautifully intricate marble carving patterns. The main throne-room in the castle hosts a throne, but it doesn’t look much like a throne. The Sultan’s chair is a very simple wood and leather throne, and is about the size of a modern day folding chair. Edie and I had quite the laugh when we compared the really fancy thrones used in catholic rule to the Moorish ones. We noticed in one of the books we had read the night before that the Moorish had incorporated a few mathematical equations into the building. The mathematics that I liked most were the ones in the doorways. Each doorway represented an irrational number, such as the square root of two. This signified the infinite connection to Allah
After we had visited the magnificent palace, we headed for the old moorish community within the old fortress walls. It turned out that the maze like structures were actually the old houses, all worn down to only the walls. The surrounding structures consisted of huge walls with towers on every corner. The westernmost and tallest tower we were able to go up onto, and the views were fantastic. You are able to see all of the surrounding city and all of the mountains behind Granada. This view was not only beautiful to the Moors but was also very advantageous. Any intruders attempting to enter the Alhambra without permission could easily be spotted from this point. To protect themselves from invaders, the Moors also developed a zig-zag type shaped doorway to put any intruders at an extreme disadvantage. Apparently, these precautions were not enough, for eventually, the Catholics invaded the beautiful Muslim settlement and conquered it. Their mark; the palace in the center, can easily be identified as something that was not originally planned to be built there. Though the Catholics did tear down a portion of the Moorish buildings, at least they left the main palace and the fortress to stand.
Our final stop was The Generalife, (pronounced chen-eral-leaf-eh not general-life) a huge garden known as the “paradise on earth”. These beautiful gardens are full of un-native and indigenous plants and have a unique aggregation system that at the time of its construction was way ahead of its time.
Ronda, when you first see it, you think, how did that city get there, who would have ever thought to plop a town atop a plateau that can only be reached by a long narrow road up to it? The Moors originally settled here way back when, but were eventually overthrown by the Spaniards, who expanded the town by building a bridge to connect the two very close together mesas. We had a blast walking around the town, gazing at the gorge and valley below, and hiking into the gorge itself. Our miserably freezing apartment was located right in the heart of the town with the bull ring on the right, and the extremely long commercial walkway on the left. We didn’t end up going to an actual bullfight, (even youtube videos were enough for my mom) but did visit the museum. The pedestrian walkway is perfect for anybody who lives off of beer, cigarettes, and designer clothes, but we had fun poking around anyways.Though the town had a charming feel to it, our apartment didn’t. The non-insulated building was equipped only with multiple radiators and some drafty windows. On the nights that we ate home, we ended up hugging our lentil soup, while crowding around two of the space heaters with ski hats and down jackets on. Not only that, we had some trouble with the fuse; it kept on blowing out. This caused us to have to turn off the radiators whenever my mom was cooking. It was a very cold two nights.
On the second day, we decided to attempt to hike down to the bottom of the gorge, but we ended up finding something much more interesting than originally planned. An old abandoned flour mill, a house, and a water generator building, all operational up until 1917 when a huge rockslide destroyed the roofs and foundations of the houses. Apparently, the owners of the molíno (flour mill) didn’t really care because they moved out of that place and didn’t try to repair it at all. The government hasn’t done anything to preserve the over-one-hundred-year-old house because there is nothing fenced off or monitored there. The trails are overgrown with huge vines that block out light and make the area seem like an Indiana Jones movie set. There are aqueducts going through the houses that are still in use, if not a bit overused (they’re overflowing a bit). The whole place seemed like it was not really part of one of the most touristy towns in Southern Europe. We followed the trail, poking our heads into caves and abandoned houses. Every once and a while, a little “Wow!” or “Man, this is so cool!” would pop out of one of our mouths, but most of the time the only sound was the rushing water and the crunching of leaves beneath our feet.
Edie and I raced each other up the trail for winner-gets-a-euro-from-dad (I won by the way) and once we were all together at the top, we began raving about what we had seen.
After over three weeks of struggling through Portuguese, I was looking forward to arriving in Spain and hearing a language I could understand. From the moment we crossed the border on the Southern Coast, I could immediately hear familiar words coming out of the radio on the bus. Our first task was to hail a taxi and get to our apartment~ Easy in Spanish! I even chatted with the taxi driver and asked him about restaurants and good streets to stroll on. I felt like Helen Keller at the water pump- suddenly everything made sense!
Our apartment in the Triana neighborhood of Sevilla is on the West side of the river, while all the major tourist sites are on the east side of the river. While one might think this is unfortunate, we saw it as an advantage as we were surrounded by locals; local shops, vendors, parks and schools. Triana reminded us of the local streets in Berkeley/Rockridge. There was a small local market right across the street from the entrance to our building, and a produce vendor two doors down. Isaac and Eden loved being able to run downstairs all by themselves to pick up produce and play at the little playground out front. It was a lively 15 minute stroll through the local streets to a beautiful bridge that dropped us right into the heart of Old Sevilla.
There is a main pedestrian plaza in Triana where cafes spill out on the plaza, families are strolling (and smoking) together, and vendors are roasting chestnuts on the corners. We finally decided to buy a paper cone of chestnuts when we noticed one particular vendor roasting not only the typical brown nuts, but also sweet potatoes! We all have a weakness for those, so we purchased some of each. We sat on a bench in the sun and people-watched while feasting on this street food.
The historic center of Sevilla is breathtaking. The city takes great pains (and taxes) to clean the streets and sites daily. The stores and storefronts are lively and sophisticated, but approachable. The main Cathedral is the largest in the world, and its grandeur did not disappoint! Next to the Cathedral, ironically, is the old Jewish Quarter, now known as El Barrio Santa Cruz. After the Inquisition, when all the Barrio’s Jews were either killed or exiled, the streets became a slum of sorts, before being refurbished by the city for the World’s Fair in 1929. It is now a romantic maze of narrow streets and intimate squares filled with cafes, bars, Flamenco shows and shops. We found a small museum about the history of the Jews in Sevilla and went on an extremely thorough tour with one of Sevilla’s few Jewish youths. He told us so many stories and pointed out so many interesting spots throughout the Barrio. We left the tour with such sadness and with a fresh reminder of how many times in our history that Jews have been unfairly treated. We also felt saddened that there was so little recognition of this history within the city of Sevilla. We hope that this little museum (only a few months old) will continue to grow and educate more and more locals and visitors to this beautiful city.
There were many sites that we visited throughout Sevilla, but my favorite for its elegance and splendor was La Plaza de España. It was built as a monument for the World’s Fair, and is now simply a place of beauty for tourists. Sprawling out in front of the plaza are the formal gardens of María Luisa Park. We really got into the Touristic Spirit there, and rented a Surrey to drive all through the park. Eden’s feet didn’t reach the pedals, but no matter! We strolled all throughout the pathways, around the museums from the World’s Fair, and through the magnificent Plaza. I was in love with it all! The weather was cold enough to keep the throngs of tourists away, but the sun was out! The thinner crowds made the whole experience so much more beautiful.
The food in Sevilla is not our favorite. Spanish food is full of Pork and shellfish, which isn’t really in our diet. We haven’t felt tempted to try too much of the tapas because of this, so we have been seeking out vegetarian and foreign food options. Don’t worry, we aren’t going to McDonald’s or Burger King (both of which are everywhere in Spain)! But we have found great Indian, Mexican, and creative Vegetarian. I also have been cooking at home most nights; “peasant food” is what the kids call it. We eat black beans and rice with papitas, lentil soup and crusty bread, Cuban chicken soup without the chicken, burritos with fresh guacamole, and even latkes with applesauce! We are more satisfied and more comfortable when we eat at home (not to mention the financial savings!). I am sure we will go broke when we are in Italy. Until then, we splurge on coffee and pastries almost daily as our “dining out” experience.
After our time in Sevilla is over, we will rent a car and drive to a spectacular, romantic hill town on a high mesa in Andalusia; Ronda. Isaac is looking forward to taking us through a photographic journey of this beautiful and romantic town.
A Week in Ferragudo, the Highlights
> Our thirst for a small city
Our entire family was tired of the big city. We had been to the largest cities in Portugal; Porto, Braga, Coimbra, and Lisbon. We needed a break, and Ferragudo gave us just that. Ferragudo is a tiny town across the river from a big city. The entire town consists of country farms and a small main street with a playground and creek in the middle. This place was about a quarter the size of Morro Bay but had the same feel; very local. Overall, we loved it.
> Our flat
The flat is one of our favorites, it was up there with the Porto apartment. The farmhouse is centered in the thirty acres of land surrounding us and is made up of two buildings, the house and the barn. The three rentals are all part of one two story farmhouse, where across the way, a pool and yard accompanied by a barn lie.
Inside, the place is furnished with a modern styled furniture and cement floors, and the upstairs consists of only the two bedrooms and the one bathroom. The enormous stretch of land used to be a fig and almond orchard and even though it had been 100 years since the farm had been active, a few of the almond trees were still around. This gave Edie and me a fun activity. Throughout the entire week, we collected, shelled, and roasted the almonds, and let me tell you, they were delicious! Anyways, The thirty acres of land was connected to the city by a half mile dirt road leading to the town, and, as I learned, make fantastic running trails.
> The beaches
Twice on our trip have we frolicked in the Portuguese waves, but the waves are not the only highlight of the beaches here. The beaches are beautiful colors of gold and turquoise with cliffs twenty meters high looming above us.
In our second visit though, I don’t know that I should have been frolicking, because when my sister, my dad and I had been playing tag, a huge wave had taken me by surprise and had swept me off of my feet. Before I knew it, I was face planted in the sand and I was soaked with unwanted water.
There are many delicious restaurants in ferragudo, but two I would like to point out; the first, a small creperie to the direct right of the playground and creek on the main drag, and the second, a uniquely flavored world café called Tempo Bistro. The creperie is owned by a very friendly man who makes the flat pancakes right in front of your eyes on the crepe griddle. Tempo Bistro, a café right at the end of our dirt road, has a unique flavor that my family thought was delicious. The chicken satay was especially good, and goes well with a seven layer cake (I forget the name, something like spekuk).
This little town has been our favorite stay throughout our trip so far, but we still have a long way to go.
A Brief History of Portugal
Humans have been living in Portugal since before 30,000 B.C.E. but calling all the locals who thrived here Portuguese would be incorrect. Many different tribes, kingdoms, and empires have ruled over this coastal area throughout its history.
The Roman empire was the first rule to reach Portuguese ground. They invaded the southern peninsula in 310 B.C.E. and ruled over the first natives. This rule lasted until the early 5th century.
The first well civilized communities came from northern Africa in 710. The Moors conquered Southern Portugal and ruled it for centuries. Northern Portugal was often rebellious and the Moors never fully conquered it permanently. Eventually, in 1139, the rebels defeated the Moors and established a Monarchy with Dom Alfonso Henriques as king. From this time, over the next half century, Portugal became an extremely wealthy and powerful country because of their location of the prime ports of Lisbon and Porto. Their wealth allowed them to sail and conquer parts of western Africa, portions of western India, and parts South America (which would soon become Brazil).
In the mid 18th century, Lisbon suffered from an enormous earthquake that killed thousands of citizens and decimated half the city. This earthquake also destroyed many documents confirming voyages and conquests. Some theories suggest that the Portuguese may have discovered America before Columbus.
In the 19th century, the Industrial Age hit Portugal, causing them to quickly become a much poorer country. This is because Portugal’s prime income was of the oceanic trade. The switch from Ocean trade to countries making their own previously internationally traded products caused an enormous drop in income to the Portuguese government. Since then, Portugal has continued to stay as one of the poorest countries in Europe until this day.
Cape Sagres is, to the people who thought the world was flat, the end of the world. If you walk out to the end of the cape, you’ll understand why. The sea seems to just… end, and the clouds form directly where the world curves out of sight, giving it a, well. end-of-the-world effect.
In the middle of Cape Sagres lies a 15th century fortress that blocked fired artillery aimed at the bunker there. The building also houses a small church about 10 meters away. Also on the cape are three sea caves that stretch from the 30 meter high cape down to the ocean. These sea caves were formed by waves corroding the rock of the cliff, and then the dirt/sandstone surface falling into the cave.
This end-of-the-world was an amazing trip and I suggest that everyone in the area should attempt to go and see it.