The Ice Lagoon – a unique experience

I woke up early the next day to see heavy mist through the window. I set off for the short walk to the Svartifoss, or Black Waterfall, in the national park.  The Svartifoss is smaller than the other waterfalls I had seen in Iceland but had an interesting setting – it tumbled down over hexagonal black basalt columns.

Svartifoss

I took some photos and then continued my walk, with views over the mountains and out to the glaciers.

The view from my walk

The park is huge, with hiking trails that over 20km long, but although the mist had lifted, the tops of the mountains were still hidden in clouds, so I decided to head back to the visitor centre and continue my drive down Route 1. I drove past many more “arms” of the mighty Vatnajokull glacier; the sun had now emerged, making the view much more impressive.

Arms of the Vatnajokull glacier, as seen from Route 1

After an hour’s driving I found one of Iceland’s highlights – the Jokulsarlon lagoon.  In the early 20th century, the glacier here used to stretch all the way to the sea, but over the years it retreated up the mountainside leaving behind a large lake, connected to the sea by a short river. Mini-icebergs break off the glacier and float in the freezing water, slowly melting and all the time drifting slowly seaward. The larger icebergs would get stuck in the shallows of the river, and would sit there, with the water rushing past them.  Eventually they would lose enough bulk to float onwards and out to sea, where the salt water would speed up their disappearance. Some icebergs ended up washed back onto the black sand of the beach – nicked the Diamond Beach by locals. There, the waves would play with them, washing them one way and another, rolling and shrinking them. It was a splendid and unique sight, unlike anything I had ever seen before, and I spent an hour watching the spectacle and trying to film the seals that live in the lake.  I was really lucky that the clouds had lifted a bit, allowing the sun to occasionally bring out the wonderful colours.

The Amazing Glacial Lagoon
The “Diamond Beach” – waves playing with ice

When I had had enough of simply standing and watching, I took a trip by amphibious truck to see the icebergs from close up. 

Shots from the boat trip on the lagoon

The guide explained that the water in the icebergs had been trapped in the glacier for a thousand years, and that the black strips you could see in some icebergs was layers of volcanic ash from eruptions hundreds of years ago during the ice’s long journey to the sea. The bright blue areas of the icebergs were made of ice that had been underwater until recently, but which had flipped to the surface as the iceberg melted and became unstable. Once exposed to the air and sun, the ice turns to snow and turns white.

After the boat trip I continued my drive to my next hotel, in the village of Hofn.  I stopped off briefly for a soak in some geothermal hot tubs. It was relaxing to sit in the hot water, with nothing to do but admire the mountains in the distance.

Hot tubs….an Icelandic way to relax after a busy day

Hofn looked like it could have been a pretty, small fishing village, but by the time I arrived the rain had returned, and everything was a dull grey colour.  I checked in and this time was very pleased with my hotel. It I had a large communal sitting room with a view of the sea, which inspired me to sit and write my blog. After an hour’s writing I decided that I deserved to eat out for change – the speciality of the town was freshly-caught langoustine, which sounded very tempting.  Unfortunately, I set out rather late by Iceland standards (7.30pm) and each restaurant had a queue of hungry, wet, tourists outside, who were being informed that they would need to wait an hour for a table. I returned to the hotel and ate the last of the food I had bought in the supermarket back near Reykjavik. I would have preferred to have eaten out, but at least I had a change from smoked fish……smoked lamb! Although it was very good, I resolved to book a table in a restaurant in advance at my next destination.

A poster in my hotel – rather appropriate for this holiday

Into the Great Outdoors

Today I picked up my hire car and left Reykjavik on Iceland’s road “1” – the circular road that goes all around the country.  My destination was a tiny place called Skaftafell, at the entrance to the National Park of Vatnajokull.  It should have been about four hours’ driving, but on the way I kept getting distracted by interesting detours

First were the Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, which were located just off Route 1. I found them really impressive but did not realise that by Iceland standards they were only of average height and size.

Seljalandsfoss waterfalls

Next was a much bigger waterfall called Skogafoss.  This was a step up in terms of size and power, with a broad river thundering over a sheer cliff to fall 60m in a great misty spray.  

Mighty Skogaoss

By now it had started to rain, and I hesitated about taking the steps up the mountain to get a view of the waterfall from the top. In the end I decided to go, and was rewarded by a great view…….

The view from the top of Skogafoss

………and a path that followed the river up the mountain.  The path was beautiful, and I couldn’t resit continuing until I reached another waterfall…..and then another……..and then another and then another. 

The fourth and final waterfall I found….only 17 more to go

By this time I had been walking for an hour. To my surprise found that I still had a strong phone signal, so I googled “Skogafoss” to see how far the path continued.  I found out that I had just started of one of Iceland’s most famous walks, the 23.4km Fimmvorduhals trek from Skoga to Porsmork.   If I continued I would see another 17 waterfalls, before traversing a barren volcanic landscape between two glaciers and then descending through alpine meadows to the village of Porsmork.  I knew that I had neither the time nor the equipment (I was even still wearing my city shoes, and had left my waterproofs in the car) to continue my exploration, so reluctantly I turned back to the car park.  My regret at not being able to go any further was soon gone as it started to rain, lightly at first and then more and more heavily. I made it back to the car just in time, with my coat soaking wet, but my shirt still dry.

Back on the road, the rain came down more and more heavily and was driven against the car by a strong wind.  Despite the weather I decided to make one more stop, at a place called the Black Beach.  I parked my car and was immediately blown towards the sea. 

The Black Beach – the little white dot in the cave is the bride!

To my amazement a couple were having their wedding photos taken in the wind and the rain.  In Reykjavik, a local told me that Icelanders never change their plans just because of the weather, and here was living proof of what he had claimed. I took two quick pictures of the hexagonal basalt columns surrounding the cave that the beach is famous for and battled back to the car against a ferocious headwind, that even humans struggled to walk against, never mind a small teddy bear made of fluff.

I set off along route 1 again, with the wind howling and wind beating down.  The road went through a very long flat plain, with thick green moss the only vegetation.  Heavy grey rain clouds surrounded me on all sides, reaching right down to the ground. I felt like I was driving along the bottom of the sea, with a storm raging above me on the surface.

Finally, the rain eased off, and I could see glimpses of mountains through the clouds.  When the mountains were joined by the edges of the huge Vatnajokull glacier, I knew I was nearing my destination of Skaftafell.  The glacier is the biggest in Europe, covering a big chunk of Eastern Iceland. It has many different “arms” that flow down from the mountain towards the sea; Skaftafell is located between two of these arms.

The mighty Vatnajokull glacier emerges from the clouds

I checked into my hotel. As Lonely Planet had warned, my horribly expensive room turned out to be very basic – there are very few accommodation options in this part of Iceland, and demand from tourists is high.  I sat down to write my blog. When I had finished, it was eight o’clock and the clouds had lifted.  It was still light, so I decided to take a quick walk to base of the glacier – the weather forecast for the next day was still not good, and if I didn’t see the glacier now, I might never see it. It was a lot further than I had expected, but after an hour I arrived at the base of glacier, where a lake had formed from melting ice, and where there was a memorial plaque to two walkers who had gone missing in the area twenty years ago. Small icebergs floated quietly on the icy water. I was alone, and with the light of the sun setting behind the remaining clouds, the atmosphere was very special – but sadly not something my phone’s camera could completely capture.  

The glacial lake at the end of my walk
Dusk falls over the Vatnajokull glacier

I got back to my hotel at around ten, tired but very happy with my impromptu evening walk. Wishing to avoid the hotel’s expensive restaurant, I had a dinner in my room – smoked fish for the third evening in a row! Then I collapsed into bed and slept soundly.

Iceland Days 1 and 2 – Cute, Quirky (and Small!) Reykjavik

The Bear is Back!

After a few months back at home in London, I am back on the road again.  This time I have chosen a country that has long been on my “to visit” list – Iceland. What’s more, it is on the UK government’s “green list” – meaning that it is a little easier to comply with all the Covid rules imposed on travelling bears.  At least it is on the green list today…….when I am due to return to the UK, who knows what list it will be on.

My journey started with a very early morning start for an 07.45 flight to Keflavik airport. On arrival I breezed through immigration and Covid controls and then sat on a rather long and boring bus trip from the airport into Reykjavik, the capital.  I dropped by bags at the hotel – it was too early to check in – and set off immediately to explore the city.  First stop was the impressive Hallgrimskirkja, which is visible from all over the city and provided a useful landmark since it is very close to my hotel.

Hallgrimskirkja Church, a key landmark

My overwhelming first impression of the city was – it is small.  The population of Reykjavik is only 122,000 (all of Iceland has only 400,000 people).  The atmosphere of central Reykjavik is like that of a small seaside town.  There is a faint smell of sea air, and lots of tourist shops, bars and cafes with seating on the pavement.  There are also lots of art galleries, and many of the houses are adorned with interesting murals.

Reykjavik has lots of interesting street art

I stopped for a well-needed and rather good and little cappuccino, calculating that it cost 4€.  Yes, Iceland is expensive, with most things costing roughly 50% more than Paris or London. Suitably woken up by the caffeine of the cappuccino (and its cost!), I explored further.  It was a very short stroll to reach the “downtown”, where I found a collection of bars.  Most of these offered happy hours, some starting as early as 14.00 hours. Like most Nordic states, alcohol is very expensive in Iceland and happy hour is the only time when alcoholic drinks are affordable.

The earliest start to a Happy Hour I have ever seen.

Many offer a second happy hour at around 10-11pm until midnight.  Reykjavik is a party city and a popular pass time for both locals and tourists alike is the pub crawl, which usually ends early in the morning at one of the hot dogs stands downtown.

After crossing the area where the bars were concentrated I discovered “old” Reykjavik, an area where pretty old wooden houses are concentrated. It was nice but so small that I had walked right through it before I realised I was there.  The old town also had a nice lake and central square which houses the parliament building. 

A square in Old Reykjavik

After that, I visited the harbour area which had an odd mix of fishing boats and whale watching excursion boats.  Finally I headed back to Laugavegur street and sat down at one of the bars. I ordered  “happy hour” beers whilst watching people go by.  

Happy Hour on Laugavegur Street

This is the main street in central Reykjavik and people walk, jog, cycle, skateboard or scooter along it all day long.  I saw one person walking backwards– I suppose he was trying to add some variety to the ritual of walking along this unavoidable thoroughfare.  After my beer, I bought some food to cook in my hotel and had a dinner of scrambled eggs with some excellent smoked fish.

The next day I woke up and thought hard about what to do. British Airways had cancelled my original flight, meaning that I had had to arrive a day earlier and now had an extra day in Reykjavik. I wasn’t sure how to spend my time – there were lots of excursions on offer to visit Iceland’s spectacular scenery, but they were all very expensive and tomorrow I would have my own car to explore the countryside at my leisure. I had also planned to go whale watching later in my trip, and had been told that from the north coast of Iceland I had better chance of seeing large whales. So I decided to do something typically Icelandic – go swimming in hot pools heated by thermal water.  On the way to the baths, I visited some rather pretty botanical gardens with some unique arctic plants

The Botanic Gardens

Next I went in search of the swimming pool. Although the pool complex was very large finding it proved surprisingly hard, and I ended up making two circuits of a large Reykjavik park before I found it.  Fortunately the pool was well worth the effort, with a huge 50m open air basin filled with pleasantly warm water. A large play pool with slides kept the local kids out of the way as a I completed a healthy workout in the warm water, and then crawled out of the pool to soak in one hot tub with 40C salt water, before trying a second hot tub with fresh water.   It was a typically Icelandic experience and I left feeling very clean, and with a pleasant post-exercise burn in my legs and arms.

After that I walked to a little-known museum devoted to the Icelandic sculptor Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum. On the way I found a very strange house, apparently owned by an Icelandic film director.  The grounds seemed to be open to the public but were very spooky, straight out of an American horror movie like the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. 

A weird house on the outskirts of Reykjavik

I took some photos and hurried on to the museum. I was impressed by the sculptor’s work, and it occurred to me that if he had lived in New York, he would probably have been rich and famous, with his pieces shown in major museums rather than his lonely studio on the outskirts of Reykjavik.

Still, he had inspirational setting to work in, with views back to the centre of the city in one direction……….

The view back towards the city….

And in the other direction, out to the countryside beyond they city, which looked wild and mountainous. It was a foretaste of things to come.

….and the view to the east …..onwards!

Time stops in Seville

I still had two more full days and a morning left of my holiday in Andalusia. I had thought about using one day to take the car and explore the nature reserve of La Donana, which has wild flamingos, boar and lynx – but a great laziness came over me. I simply liked Seville too much, and spent all my time here.

I had breakfast on my terrace, listening to the church bells in the cool morning air………

A nice way to start the day

Then I would visit something before the heat of the afternoon set in and before the tourist crowds arrived. Seville’s Golden Age was in the 1500s, just after the rediscovery of the Americas, when all Spanish trade with its new colonies passed through here. In the 1600s Seville lost its monopoly on trade, its river silted up to make navigation harder for ships, and Cadiz became the new centre of trade with the Americas. Still, the Golden Age left Seville with a very large historic centre and many beautiful buildings.

One day I visited the Casa de Pilatos, a typical mansion in the old town……..

The Casa de Pilatos

And on the other I went back to the Alcazar gardens….

A return to the Alcazar gardens

After a morning of sight-seeing I would find a shady terrace for tapas for lunch – the choice of places was huge.

Never hard to find a place for tapas in Seville
Fans preparing for one of Spain’s matches in the Euro 2021 competition. It was noon…..and the match didn’t start until 5pm

After that I did like the Sevillanos and went back to my flat for a siesta and to write my blog during the heat of the afternoon. Refreshed, I would then head out in the late afternoon for more sightseeing………

The bullring – pretty, whatever your opinion of bull-fighting
Another view of Seville Cathedral
The original “El Giraldillo” weather vane – the one now on top of La Giralda is a copy.

…..and then buy ham, wine and cheese for dinner on my terrace.  I didn’t do much, in the classic tourist sense of visiting things – but I felt great. Time ceased to have importance, and the first day blended into the second without me noticing.  I was getting to really like Seville, and think I could have spent another week there doing very little.

I remembered just in time that for my return to the UK I had to do a Covid test here (day 1) and then book yet more tests in the UK (three more tests!!) and fill in a bunch of forms online. The form-filling was day 2’s afternoon activity in the cool of my flat.

On the third day I was due to leave. I spent the morning pottering around Seville’s old Santa Cruz quarter and could feel the heat already – the last two days had been fairly cool, but today they forecast temperatures would reach 34C in the afternoon and that it would stay hot for the next few days.  It was definitely time to go, and I drove back to Malaga airport in the cool of my car’s aircon. I made a quick stop in Osuna, yet another pretty old Spanish town.

The “Duke’s House” in Osuna

That’s all for now!

I will be back to Andalusia– in the autumn or spring next time, when it pleasantly warm, and in some happy future where there is no Covid and no face masks. Next time I will visit Jerez and La Donana, maybe head across the Portuguese border to the Algarve – if I don’t get waylaid again by the charms of Seville and spend all my time there!

Back to Seville – La Giralda from every angle

Today I travelled back to Seville from Cadiz.  En route, I  made a very quick visit to Jerez de la Frontera, spending an hour wandering around the old town and enjoying a drink at a tiny cafĂ© in one of the plazas I had discovered.  I liked Jerez, it was a pity I could not spend more time there.  Apart from its old town and famous horse-riding school, it is the centre for the sherry industry. Lots of the producers offer tours of their facilities and tastings of their products, but since I was driving I could not indulge myself.

A pretty church in the old town of Jerez

On arrival back in Seville I managed to find my flat’s parking space in the old town first time (no mean feat, driving in the old town is famously difficult) and then set off on foot to find my flat, which was hidden away in a maze of narrow pedestrian streets near the cathedral.  It was an atmospheric place spread over three floors  – the first two dark and cool, and the third one sunny with a terrace looking out to the cathedral.

Seville’s cathedral is one of the most beautiful in the world.  In the 13th century, the Moors built a mosque on the site, and after the Reconquista of Seville by the Spanish in 1248 this was converted to a church.  Further building took place from 1434 to 1517 to create what was then the world’s largest church (and even now ranks as fourth largest).  The cathedral’s famous tower, la Giralda, is actually the minaret from the original mosque. On the very top is a statue of faith, called “El Giraldillo”, which is also a weather vane, turning with the wind. “Girar” means “to turn” in Spanish, from where the name “La Giralda” is derived.

La Giralda, the tower of Seville Cathedral

I had booked my visit online, so could avoid the queue of people looking to buy tickets.  I booked the last possible slot in the day, when it would be cooler to climb the 104.5m to the top of La Giralda.  Unusually, the tower has ramps in place of stairs – there are many different legends as to why this is, the most colourful being that the first imam liked to take his donkey with him when he climbed the tower for the call to prayers.  The view from the top of the La Giralda was suitably spectacular……..

View from La Giralda over the cathedral and to the Alcazar

Next, I visited the cathedral itself, which was incredibly beautiful, with many small passages and chapels leading off from the huge central space of the main building. One highlight among many is the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Since I had booked the last time slot for my visit, the cathedral began to empty as closing time approached and I had the place almost to myself.  I was almost the last to leave.

Inside Seville Cathedral – the roof, tall columns, the tomb of Columbus and an intricate wooden altar

My next stop continued the “Seville Cathedral” theme.  I visited a neighbouring hotel with a terrace looking out to La Giralda for cocktails.  The view was beautiful, even if the sun was uncomfortably strong. Still, I was lucky – today it was only 28C, cool for June in Seville.

I deserved a drink after climbing up La Giralda

After I headed off to have a dinner of tapas in a local bar, before retiring back to my flat and enjoying a last beer with yet another take on La Giralda – this time at night.  

La Giralda at night (OK, I admit, taken from somewhere a bit closer than my balcony)

It had been a great day – not only had I loved the cathedral, but I was beginning to really like the town of Seville itself, with its beautiful buildings and lazy street life. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow to explore it further.

From Malaga to Cadiz

I slept badly. Although the flat had very good noise insulation, somehow I still sensed the buzz of the activity on Malaga’s streets.  We bears need our sleep – after all we hibernate in winter – and I awoke with a sore head to pack my stuff and check out.  Extracting my car from the car park was just as slow and stressful as parking had been.  With relief I negotiated my way out of Malaga’s old town and on to the motorway, heading for Cadiz.

At first the road was ugly, mile after mile of nondescript tourist development along the Costa del Sol.  After an hour I finally emerged from this modern mess, and caught a glimpse of the Rock of Gibraltar before the motorway left the coast.  The Rock was impressive from a distance, but the complications of crossing a border with Covid restrictions in place made visiting impossible.  Oddly, none of the motorway signs along the route ever mentioned Gibraltar – I guess the Spanish are still upset that it remains foreign territory, having being ceded to the British in 1713 at the end of War of the Spanish Succession.

I stopped for lunch in the “white village” of Medina-Sidonia.  

Entrance to the Old Town in sleepy Medina-Sidonia

The village was fast asleep in the early afternoon sun, except for one restaurant with a tiny interior and huge terrace. Here, the entire population seemed to have congregated for Sunday lunch.  I managed to grab the last table, which was in the shade and cooled by a fresh breeze and ordered tuna ceviche. It arrived quickly, despite the crowded terrace, was excellent and very cheap – just what I needed after my experience with the “golden prawns of Malaga” (see yesterday’s blog).

After a very pleasant lunch stop I headed straight to Cadiz. Fortunately I had chosen a hotel just at the entrance to the old town, meaning I didn’t have to negotiate any narrow streets to check in and park my car.  The hotel was in a former convent, and had been converted in an original way, with a library and living room instead of the usual hotel bar.  The central courtyard was bathed in the sound of a recording of a choir softly singing religious music.

The courtyard of my hotel

After checking-in and freshening up, I set off to explore. Cadiz is probably the oldest continuously inhabited city in Western Europe, having been founded by the Phoenicians in 1104BC.  It then became a Carthaginian and then Roman territory, before being so completely destroyed by the Visigoths that almost no very old buildings remain. It then passed into Moorish hands, before being captured by the Spanish, when it bloomed.  First it became a centre of exploration (Christopher Columbus set sail for America from here) and then it became a centre of trade with the Americas in the 18th century. Most of the historic centre dates from the latter period.

The old town is almost an island, being attached to the mainland by a long thin strip of sand – something that made it vulnerable to attack by foreign powers jealous of its wealth. It has the usual cathedral, plazas, and maze of small side streets typical of historical cities in Andalucia – with the bonus of views of the  Bay of Cadiz and the Atlantic Ocean.

Cadiz Cathedral
Cadiz has many beautiful hidden entrances tucked away down its side-streets
Typical narrow street in Cadiz

The historic centre is surprisingly compact, and I found I had visited most of it after a couple of hours strolling around. It was quieter and seemed less affluent than the others cities I had visited.  Compared to the riches of Seville or Granada, or the animation of Malaga, Cadiz came as a slight anti-climax.

I had dinner at a restaurant near the hotel.  The wine proposed by the sommelier was excellent, but my order of tuna was forgotten in the kitchen and arrived overcooked.  I complained to the manager, who was unsympathetic, and got my own back by filing a review on TripAdvisor. This was my very first unsuccessful meal in Spain.

I headed back to my hotel to write up my blog. It had not been most successful day, but that’s life on the road.  At least I slept really well in peaceful atmosphere of the converted convent.  

The Golden Prawns of Malaga

Having seen the Alhambra in every possible way, it was time to move on from Granada.  I took the road through the mountains to the coast.   Just after leaving Granada, the road passes a spot called the Suspiro del Morro – the sigh of the Moor.  It was here that the last Moorish Emir was supposed to have stopped on his journey from Granada to North Africa.  Legend has it that he looked back and gave a great sigh at the sight of the palace he had been forced to surrender to the Spanish.  His mother then scolded him with the brutal words – “Cry like a woman, for what you could not defend as a man”.

The road went through some pretty mountain scenery…….

The mountain road from Granada to the coast

…..before hitting the coast, which was blighted by mile after mile of modern tourist development.  My guidebook had recommended the town of Salobrena as being relatively unspoiled, but it impressed me so little that I didn’t even bother to get out of the car to visit it.  I did stop at Nerja, a town with a pretty seafront hidden behind the usual ugly modern housing, for an excellent lunch of fresh dorado.  From there I headed into Malaga,  drove my car through the streets of the old town to the public carpark my hotel had recommended.  Parking was traumatic – the ramps leading up and down between the floors of the car park were narrow and winding. My car’s collision detectors continually screamed with alarm at my proximity to the walls. I discovered that the only safe way up was when the detectors on both sides were showing red, which meant I was exactly in the middle of the passage.  The carpark was busy, so I had to negotiate several floors of ramps before I found a space, which was just as narrow as the ramps had been.  The whole parking experience took twenty minutes and I emerged drenched in sweat.

My flat was right in the centre of the old town, and had a balcony overlooking a busy pedestrian street with bars and restaurants.  This was both good and bad.  During the day, the atmosphere was fun and stimulating, but at night the partying outside continued until the early hours of the morning – Malaga is a young people’s party town. Even the ice cream shop opposite only closed at midnight.

The view from my balcony during the “quiet” time of day (mid afternoon)

I headed out after check-in and had a dinner of tapas in a local bar in front of the cathedral, before strolling to the port, where even more bars and restaurants awaited me.  I arrived just after sunset and scanned the darkening horizon unsuccessfully for a sighting of the coast of North Africa. I strolled back through the still busy streets of the old town and reached my flat at eleven – which by Malaga standards is a very early time to go to bed.

The next day I set off to explore the city. Despite its reputation as a party town, there is quite a lot to see and do in Malaga other than drinking.  My first destination was the Alcazaba – the old Moorish fort located on a hill behind the old city.  I clambered up and enjoyed some old Moorish architecture, pretty gardens, the views of Malaga, and – yes, finally- Africa in the far distance.  It was nice but suffered terribly by comparison with the Alhambra which I had visited only two days earlier.

View of Malaga from the Alcazaba
…and the port, with Africa on the horizon
The Alcazaba itself

It was now lunch time, and I headed to the market to buy lunch and something to cook for dinner. I was tempted by a very busy restaurant selling seafood, spread out over the pavement outside.  It was a fun atmosphere – a constant stream of customers, animated conversations in many different languages, and the waiters dodging between the tables with plates of tempting seafood.  Our waiter recommended “carabineros” which he explained were large red prawns, so I ordered three, with some octopus and langoustines.  The carabineros arrived and were huge and delicious – with the texture of lobster but a much stronger taste.  They were much larger than I had expected and I was glad the langoustines had somehow been forgotten by my waiter.

Delicious Carabineros or Cardinal Prawns – which perhaps should be called “golden prawns”

I asked for my bill, and got a shock – each prawn was priced at 19€.  I checked the restaurant’s menu and saw that that the indeed they were expensive, but should have been 14.50€ each, so I complained. The waiter tried to explain that these prawns were sold by weight, but I insisted and ended up talking with the head waiter and then the owner, who adjusted my bill.  Even the adjusted bill was still over 60€, way more than I had expected to pay for lunch.  I was annoyed with myself – travelling teddy bears are often targets for tourist scams, since we are obviously foreign. I had forgotten two basic rules – never order what the waiter recommends and always check the price before ordering.  I headed into the market, annoyed with myself, and bought oxtail (a local specialty) for dinner.  I saw a few stands selling the “carabineros”…….. for 85€ per kilo!  The restaurant hadn’t ripped me off after all – I had ordered some of the most expensive seafood on the planet. Checking the internet, these prawns are known as Cardinal Prawns or Scarlet Shrimps in English and indeed are considered a rare delicacy. I think they should be called “Golden Prawns”.

Walking back to my flat to drop off the meat I had bought, I reflected upon my lunchtime experience. The shock of the bill that had upset me, after so many Spanish meals where I had paid much less than I expected.  If I had set out intent on trying an exotic delicacy, I would have been very happy with lunch, and would have told myself that such a meal would cost at least double back home.  This thought comforted me and gave me the energy to continue my exploration of Malaga in the afternoon after a short siesta.

First stop was the cathedral, which was even bigger than the one in Granada. Each Andalusian city seemed to compete for the title of most extravagant cathedral and Malaga’s effort took a hundred years to build. The result, although scaled down from the original ambitions, was truly impressive. 

Magnificent Malaga Cathedral

My visit included a tour of the roof.  Aside from showing some worrying cracks in the building’s structures, the roof gave great views in all directions over Malaga. 

On the roof of Malaga Cathedral

Next stop was something completely different – the Picasso Museum, established in the mansion where the artist was born.  I have lost count of how many Picasso museums I have seen – his output was prodigious, and it seems that many of his many heirs settled their inheritance tax bills by donating enough paintings to the state to set up yet another museum.   This museum probably didn’t contain the artist’s best work, but as always there were several pictures that demanded that you stand to admire them for a few minutes.

“Man with Shovel” (and teddy)

Next, I had intended to visit another art museum, the Thyssen museum, but I had run out of both time and energy. I had a drink in a nice cafĂ© next to the cathedral………

View of the cathedral from a cafe

……and  then bought a bottle of wine to have with my oxtail for dinner, whilst the party outside on the streets continued in full swing. 

The Alhambra from Every Angle

Today was Alhambra day.  The Alhambra is a palace built in the 14th century by the Nasrid (Moorish) rules of Andalucia. The area around Granada was the last part of Spain to be reconquered from the Moors, whose empire had once stretched across North Africa and as far as Southern France in Europe.  Faced with a hopeless military situation, the last Nasrid ruler surrendered the city and the Alhambra without a fight to the “Reyes Catolicos” – King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabel the 1st of Castille.

That was in 1492, the same year that Columbus rediscovered America.  After that the Alhambra suffered some ill-judged additions by later Christian rulers and then fell into neglect for centuries, even at one point being occupied by squatters. It was then “rediscovered” in the 19th Century by northern European intellectuals.

Today the Alhambra is of the most beautiful man-made structures in the world.  At the heart of the Alhambra are the Nasrid Palaces, where the Emir and his harem lived – a group of lavish rooms, courtyards and gardens. A sophisticated system captures water from the nearby mountains to provide cooling pools, streams and fountains.

The Alhambra during the day

I had booked tickets for entry to the Nasrid Palaces at 11, so I could have a lie-in and a late start.  More areas of the palaces were open during the day than during my night visit, but there were also more tourists, many of whom seemed more interested in taking photos than enjoying the atmosphere of this special place. I took my time for the visit, enjoying the cool of shaded courtyards and the constant sound of running water.

Flowing water everywhere in the Alhambra
A shady garden

After visiting the palaces, I enjoyed the famous Alhambra gardens. They spread over a huge area, and it took me a couple of hours to see them all.  In the gardens were yet more fountains and running water. I was lucky – after yesterday’s storm, it was pleasantly cool even during the early afternoon, and the rain had also brought out the vivid colours and sweet smells of the flowers.

One of the gardens in the Alhambra complex

I rounded off my visit to the Alhambra by climbing the Torre de la Vela of the Alcazaba, the part of the complex that served as a defensive fort. It offered great views over the city of Granada and back over the palaces and gardens of the Alhambra itself.

The amazing view from the Torre de la Vela

After that, I left by the Gate of Justice, which I now considered to be my own secret back entrance, since it was so close to my hotel and since no other tourists seemed to have found it. I had a quick bite to eat in my hotel before setting out again, this time to visit the city of Granada itself. First, I visited the huge cathedral…………

Granada Cathedral

…………before exploring the twisting maze of small streets that made up the Albaicin, the old Arab Quarter.  

A quiet street in the Arab quarter

The area buzzed with small shops and had tea rooms offering mint tea instead of cafes serving beer and tapas.  I wandered around, choosing the option that led uphill at every junction. Eventually I reached my destination – the Plaza San Nicolas.  Although I’d been to Granada twice before, I had never found this spot, which has the best views of the Alhambra in all of Granada. The palace towers over the city from its steep hill, framed from behind by tall mountains, some still sprinkled with the last of the winter’s snow.

The definitive view of the Alhambra from the Plaza San Nicolas

I found a restaurant for a drink, and enchanted by the view, stayed for dinner as well.  It was a perfect spot to admire the Alhambra from, and despite the area’s popularity (a big queue formed for my restaurant shortly after I had found my table), the food was very good and reasonably priced.

After a leisurely couple of hours drinking a good local wine, eating a tagine (a speciality in Granada) and taking lots of pictures as the light slowly changed, I reluctantly made my way back to my hotel.  There was to be one last surprise in my day – I discovered the hotel’s roof terrace, with its view of the city and, yet again, the inescapable Alacazaba of the Alhambra. I lay on a sun lounger, drinking cold beer and watching the light slowly fade over the city. By this time my phone had long since run out of battery, so sorry, no photos – but maybe it is better that way, since I could better appreciate the stillness of the evening. The city’s many church bells kept me dimly conscious of the passage of time, which seems to pass more slowly here. They finally informed me it was half past eleven, time for bed after another busy day.

From Seville to Granada

Today I set off from Seville to Granada.  Just after leaving Seville, I stopped at Carmona, one of the many old historic towns that make travelling in Spain so pleasant.

The entrance to Carmona’s old town
Strolling around Carmona

After Carmona, I made another stop in Antequera, yet another pretty old town.  This one had a pretty historic centre, where I stopped for a drink………..

Antequera old town

….and an old Moorish Alcazaba with great views over the city and over the surrounding mountains.

views from the Alcazaba

Antequera also has Roman catacombs and a site with six thousand year-old Neolithic dolmens which I didn’t have time to visit – really it is the town with everything!

My hotel in Granada was in the centre, right next to the Alhambra.  Driving there was tricky, and the managers had sent me detailed instructions with pictures of the route. I had to give my car registration to be allowed to pass the barrier into the old town, and then after navigating many narrow lanes turned up a tiny, steep side road to find my hotel.

After checking in, I popped into town briefly to buy something to cook for dinner, and sat out a thunder shower in my hotel room before heading up the steep hill to the Alhambra for a night-time visit of the Nasrid Palaces.  The Alhambra was really atmospheric in the dusk…….

The Justice Gate, a side entrance to the Alhambra only 5-minutes walk from my hotel
The Alhambra at dusk

…..and the specially illuminated Nasrid palaces were spectacular.  They don’t sell many tickets for the night-time visit, and sometimes I even had whole rooms to myself and could imagine that I was one of the Nasrid emirs.  More about the history of the Alhambra in tomorrow’s blog.

Emir for a couple of hours – the Nasrid palaces at night

I returned back to the hotel at half past eleven, with thunder rumbling overhead and occasional heavy drops of rain falling on my head, but I got home more or less dry.  What a great day!

Hooray! It’s cloudy! A day exploring Seville

I never thought I would celebrate cloudy weather in one of my travel blogs.  I woke up and went onto my balcony to see clouds covering the sun and feel a refreshing morning coolness on my fur. Today it would be possible to explore the city on foot, without roasting!

Relief! It’s cloudy. My kilt isn’t really suited to sunny weather, I need to buy some new clothes.

I decided to see some of Seville’s less popular attractions to the north of the historic centre.  First I explored my local area, the Triana, which is famous for its many ceramics shops.

Ceramics shops in la Triana

Next I strolled along the banks of the Guadalquivir River,

The path along the side of the river

……..before crossing over one of its bridges to reach the area called Alameda de Hercules.  The streets were narrow, and I enjoyed the sounds of a city waking up – friends chatting noisily in neighbourhood cafes, someone practicing guitar on an upstairs balcony……It was a charming insight into the real everyday life of the Sevillanos, with not another tourist in sight. There were pretty churches and tempting cafes everywhere.

Street in the un-touristy area north of the historic centre

Despite the large number of cafes, I found it hard to find a place to sit down for coffee.  Every time I saw a nice place outside, it was either full, or someone would beat me to the very last free place. I finally found a good table near the remnants of the old Moorish city wall.

The old city wall

I then carried on my walk, stopping to photograph yet more churches. I popped into most of them, and found that in the majority, a mass was being celebrated. Religious life is still very active in Seville.

Churches in Seville

I then made a surprise discovery, stumbling across the Palacio de las Duenas, a beautiful villa built over the 15th and 16th Centuries, and home to the Alba family, one of Spain’s oldest aristocratic families, for several centuries. The Alba family married a Scottish noble family in the 20th Century, and the current Duke of Alba, the wonderfully named Carlos Fitz-James Stuart y Martínez de Irujo, opened the palace to the public in 2016. He still lives in private upstairs rooms that are closed to tourists.  The villa was not in my guidebook, and there were very few other visitors. Often I would find I had an entire garden, courtyard or room to myself.  I spent a happy couple of hours enjoying the atmosphere and taking lots of photos.

The beautiful Palacio de las Duenas

When I had finally finished my visit of the Palacio de las Duenas, I walked back through the busy city centre, finding yet more pretty churches…………

How many churches does one city need?

………before reaching my flat at around 2 o’clock. I sensed the sun was about to break through the clouds, meaning that the temperature would soon shoot up, so I spent the afternoon in my flat writing my blog and enjoying being lazy.

That evening I headed out for a typical Seville evening – dinner in three different places. First, I had tapas at a restaurant on the Guadalquivir River, with views over to the cathedral and bullring in the historic centre……….

Dinner venue No1 – by the side of the river

Next, I tried a trendy bar with upmarket tapas in an old mansion………….

Dinner continued – a trendy tapas bar in La Triana

………before finding a simple street bar located in front of a huge, imposing church for a last beer.

Dinner continued again…in front of a beautiful church

 In Seville, it would be very tempting to skip sight-seeing altogether and just wander from one beautiful bar to another.

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