Getting Ready to Leave for India and Nepal

Only a few more days and we are on our way to the most exotic trip I have ever taken – to India and Nepal. There is so much to see, but I know that the two weeks will fly by.
Friday, October 13, we leave for New Jersey, where we will stay with very old friends who live not from the Newark Airport, where we arrive. Our flight to New Delhi departs from JFK, so they have kindly offered to take us there on Monday, October 16. The flights to JFK from Guadalajara were god-awful, arriving just after midnight and our flight isn’t until 3:00 PM. So, this side trip will be not only fun, but much easier.
From everyone who has been to India, the reviews have been that it was incredible, a trip of a lifetime, sometimes dirty and there is poverty, but what we will experience will be amazing. I also was told that the shopping is amazing, so I am taking older clothes, with the prospect of leaving the there and buying new things. Yippee!
I would love to travel with only a carry-on, but then you can’t take liquids and it becomes so confining. I just returned from four days in Phoenix, with only a carry-on bag and boy, was it liberating! Too bad I can’t make that work for two weeks.
I will be posting daily, hopefully with pictures of the various places we will be visiting. This blog is not just for friends, but for us, to remind ourselves of the experiences we will be enjoying.
Feel free to write to us with questions or comments. Here is a link to see the cities where we are traveling. You can enlarge it to get a better view of where we will be.
https://www.travellerspoint.com/member_map.cfm?user=helenacf

Miami to Ajijic

In Miami and ready to head home to Ajijic – May 27, 2017

We arrived in Miami after a 9-1/2 flight from Madrid. It was an easy flight, all daylight, so other that short naps, we didn’t sleep much. Getting back into the right time zone will take a few days, as expected. This Miami interlude will help a bit, I think.

The plan was to coordinate our flight from Europe with our flight to Mexico. We didn’t realize that the Mexican airline we used to get to Miami and then back home, doesn’t fly daily. So, we had a day and a half to rest. The other interesting fact was that we didn’t know it was US Memorial Day weekend. Amazing now you disconnect from the American way of life when you have been away for years.

We decided to hit the closest mall for the day to explore the sales. The Dolphin Mall is huge, a mix of regular and outlet stores. We were told that using Uber was the way to go, but I couldn’t get the app to work for me to order one. So, we took a pricey taxi for the fifteen minute ride. Inside, the mall was over-chilled, as is typical for Florida. The warm, humid days in south Florida hit you in the face, so walking into heavy refrigeration really gives you a chill.

Our initial impression was that we were definitely in the US by the number of huge (beyond obese) people, many heavily tattooed. After seeing Europeans who were much thinner for the past month, it is a shock to see so many huge people. And, wearing very skimpy clothing, no matter how large you are, is just a way to show off your curves! Really??

The other thing we noticed was that there were an abundance of luggage stores, selling mainly the polycarbonate clamshell type at really low prices. We saw many people moving around the mall with various sizes of these suitcases, so they must be very popular. I was tempted. Although I have good luggage, when I bought them they only had two wheels, not four. It is so easy to move four wheels down a terminal, rather than dragging your bag. After all, what are older good suitcases worth… not much.

There were some good sales, so we left some dollars at the mall, hoping to be able to fit the new purchases into our bags. Once back in the room, after sharing a salad for dinner near the mall, we packed and everything fits.

We are ready to be home and get back to our normal schedule. Travel is great and we already have a trip planned for next October, India and Nepal, but getting home is equally joyful. Part of the fun of travel is the planning and anticipation. We decided that our tolerance for travel is two to two and a half weeks. We met people traveling for as much as four months, going to many countries. Going from hotel to hotel, on and off buses, trains and planes, hoping to have two or more days together to do some laundry, becomes quite a challenge. So, either we will do shorter trips or maybe a longer trip using one or two places as anchors to return to as a base.

This is my last entry for this trip. It has been fun to document all of our adventures, looking at the pictures to remind us of the places we visited. We look forward to seeing everyone at home, especially our puppies. Thanks for all your comments. Hugs to all…  Helena and Jim

Toledo and Madrid

Our Last Day of Touring -Toledo, then Madrid – May 25, 2017

We left Granada this morning to travel to Toledo for lunch and a tour of the city. There are 2,000 years of history in Toledo, a mix of three cultures, Muslim, Christian and Jewish. On the way, we passed through an area north of Granada that has been a wine-growing region for claret, a mix of red and green grapes since 800 BC. We passed many vineyards, all perfectly maintained. We also saw a couple of castles, in particular the famous castle noted in Cervantes’ Man of La Mancha,” including the windmills. Note the “ancient” construction crane.

We arrived near Toledo for a photo opportunity on the way in, which was spectacular. Our lunch was at a restaurant that caters to many busloads of tourists at once, and there were at least four buses there when we arrived. It was adequate and allowed us to move on to visit Toledo, again. The streets were shaded, as they were in Granada. However, it turns out that it was not for providing shade, as we thought. The fabric was hung to mark the way (along with flower petals) for a huge Catholic celebration on July 11, La Fiesta de Corpus Christi. We will be missing that! This was the same reason for the fabric in Granada. Ooops!

Because we did a half day tour there a week ago, we didn’t go into the same sites with the group and guide. It was very hot today, 39C, about 95F, which made us a bit sluggish. Back to the bus and on to Madrid for the end of this trip. Three and a half weeks go by and it is so difficult to remember where you were or when. Once home and after massive amounts of laundry and jet lag sleep, I will put the daily blogs and more pictures together in a book for us. It will trigger the memories of what we did and when.

Miami will be a nice break on the way back tomorrow. We are having a Shabbat dinner at a friend’s house and a day to catch up before returning home on the 28th. I hope Dino and Pancho remember us.

As a final comment about our vacation, we enjoyed Morocco, its exoticness and history. Our timing could not have been better, except for the unusual sand storm. We had sun and mild temperatures every day, which was a gift. Madrid was amazing. We could live there in a heartbeat. The energy and charm of the city was intoxicating. Andalusia was very interesting, filled with thousands of years of history, conquests, re-conquests and ruins. It makes the Western Hemisphere look like a baby in diapers. Looking back, we would have taken a different trip through Andalusia, with better hotels and smaller tour groups. We would recommend the cooking class, though. Spain is a wonderful destination. If it has suffered from the financial crisis of the past couple of years, you would never know. Next time, maybe include Portugal?

Granada

Beautiful Granada – May 24, 2017

We left Marbella this morning, passing by more incredible homes, but this time higher up on the mountain. To the north of where we were yesterday, you can see building after building crowding both the beach area and as you go up the mountain. This is actually one of many towns along the Mediterranean, mainly populated by middle class visitors, predominantly from Spain, France, the UK and Germany. It is less expensive than Marbella, but still has extraordinary views.

As we wind our way through the mountains, we see one olive orchard after another. There are supposedly over 50 million olive trees growing in Spain and about 50 different varieties. All varieties start out white, then green, red, and finally black. I am not an olive fan, although I do like olive oil. You can find soaps, creams, and lots of love their products, all made with olive oil.

Granada is very cosmopolitan. The downtown area has beautiful buildings, boulevards filled with flowers and streets with a fabric cover to keep the intense sun from cooking everyone. It can get extremely hot here in the summer. This trip has been blessed with incredible weather, sunshine almost every day and mild temperatures. May is definitely the month to go to Spain and Morocco. In any case, we had a couple of hours to wander until our visit to the Alhambra.

We meandered through town on one of many pedestrian-only streets. The shops were very enticing and, being the consummate shopper (although not necessarily a buyer), I wanted to stop and see what the fashion was in Europe. But instead, we found a shaded cafe and shared a pizza, always with a beer and a tinto verano for me. We met the bus at our hotel nearby and headed to the most famous site in Granada, the Alhambra.

This ruin is both a fort and an ancient city. It has several palaces, built by the Arabs in the 11th century, then taken by the Christians in the 12th century. There are the remnants of the military quarters, the aqueducts and, most notably, the magnificent gardens. Our expectations were that we would see highly decorated areas, as we did in Córdoba at the Mezquita Cathedral. Instead, we saw early Roman structures and a bit of what is left of the Arab influence. We had a very long walking tour that took us to see all the areas, leaving us exhausted and somewhat disappointed.

We finally checked into our hotel and had a little rest before our buffet dinner in the hotel. It was adequate enough. Good thing we had something yummy for lunch. We decided to see a different flamenco show starting at 10:00. It was touted as a unique experience because it is presented by gypsy dancers in a cave. They are not professionally trained, but have their own style of flamenco dancing. We weren’t sure what allure the cave part held, but decided to try it out.

We arrived to find the place packed with tourists who were just leaving from the previous show. We entered a long, narrow room, with chairs on either side of the room and about a dozen at the far end situated with risers to facilitate viewing, approximately 80 chairs in total. At the entry end, there was a man with a guitar and another with a percussion instrument, along with a female “singer.” The dancers came in and out of the room to dance a bit. Polka dots must be the gypsy fabric pattern of choice, because almost every outfit was in polka dots, even for men.

Well, having seen some of the best flamenco dancing in Seville, we were hoping to see another type of flamenco, as advertised. To say it was disappointing is an understatement. Actually, my four year old grandson can mimic the flamenco with finer skill. We found out after that there three of these “caves” (really basement rooms) filled with people, and at least three shows per evening. The dancers just move from room to room. And, the singing was more like a cat caught in a compromising position, howling for assistance. Even including one drink, at $32 Euros per person, the gypsies have found a great way to swindle the unwitting tourist.

The van took us away, but not before we stopped at a high point opposite the Alhambra, drenched in light against the midnight sky. That was something to see. We then made our way through the Almacen neighborhood, the oldest in Granada, barely wide enough to fit the van to civilization. We passed two ancient Arab gates from the 10th century into what was called the hippie section of town. With a population of 240,000 inhabitants in Granada, there are 80,000 students at the many universities and they seem to be in this part of town. There were some young people with dreadlocks and clothing that could have been from the 60’s. Been there, done that! (Actually, not me.) And, for the first time in Spain, there was graffiti everywhere.

We made it to the hotel quite late, not looking forward to our early wake up call. Sleep came very quickly.

Córdoba

Arriving in Córdoba – May 22, 2017

The drive to Córdoba was not long and quite beautiful. It felt like you could be anywhere in the countryside of Europe, or even Mexico. There were lots of farms and, in particular, huge areas of solar panels and wind farms. Spain is on the forefront of utilizing solar as a renewable energy source. There was a light on a 1.5 kilometer pole that generates enough electricity to serve a huge area. The rays of light emanating from it can be easily seen from a distance. FYI, the grocery stores don’t provide plastic bags for your purchases, unless you purchase a reusable bag. That is pretty progressive.

After a couple of hours, we arrived in Córdoba, a beautiful town. The old part, dating back to the second century, was charming and had a very distinct residential area, as compared to the other old cities that are mainly filled with shops selling souvenirs. Córdoba has a population of 400,000 and they seem quite active.

We walked with Emilio, our local guide, through the Jewish Quarter. It seems that the Jewish influence throughout Spain was evident everywhere. As a World Heritage City, Córdoba is well maintained. As a matter of note, despite the financial woes that we have heard about over the past few years (along with Portugal, Italy and Greece), all the cities we have visited, as well as the roadways, are immaculate, well maintained and free of graffiti. And, the plentiful gardens, filled with roses and other beautiful flowering plants, provide a quiet place to relax.

Maimonides, the famous Jewish scholar, was born in Córdoba. He has a plaza named for him and is well regarded. There is one synagogue here, but it is not used, as there are few Jews left here. Our next stop was totally memorable. It was the Mezquita Cathedral. Unremarkable from the old stone walls outside, it is an architectural marvel inside. Started in 795 AD by the Arabs and continued in the 9th century, it has over 95 columns, each signed by the craftsman. And they are all different, with unique capitals on top, different heights, and made of different materials. We saw one that is made of alabaster and when a light is shined directly on it, it is translucent.

There is not a lot of light inside the building, as the Muslim Arabs wanted the light to come in from the huge west-facing doors, so it would be behind them when they would be facing Mecca facing east inside. The arches are amazing, especially when you remember when they were built and that they are self-supporting. The mosaic work was equally impressive. In the 12th century, the Christians converted it as a very elegant, ornate cathedral.

The mahogany wood used for the carvings came from South America and are pieces of art. The sculptured marble figures are incredible. Of course, the paintings depict religious figures and could be in the best museums of the world. Once the Christians came, the mosque darkness became light-filled by opening the ceilings to let in the light, from God! The pictures do not do it justice, believe me. The building covers four acres and with the garden courtyard, it is five and a half acres in size.

It was time for a bit of lunch and an opportunity to sit down. We had the typical and recommended soup of Córdoba, salmoreja, a creamy tomato soup with small chunks of ham and cheese. It was horrible! Where was the gazpacho I was expecting? So far, no gazpacho anywhere. It is far more prevalent in the north of Spain, I believe. The ratatouille with eggs was good, though. A little nap, and we were ready to return to the old city for more exploring.

The flamenco looking aprons were tempting, as were the leather handbags. After much consideration, no apron or bags. Neither were bargains and probably would become dust collectors once home. Dinner at the hotel started with the same soup as lunch, which was not a good sign. We left early from our 9:00 dinner and headed to the annual Córdoba Fair, a big deal locally. There were many booths selling clothes and souvenirs, as well as local food on the way in. Once inside, there were rides, so big that we couldn’t imagine why anyone would put themselves in such jeopardy. Some of the rides were truly scary.

Women and children were dressed in flamenco outfits and there were many huge tents set up for dinner and the ubiquitous flamenco show. The noise, lights and sensory overload were too much to handle, so we walked back to our hotel and collapsed. It was after 11:00 and the end of a long day.

Seville

Checking out Seville – May 21, 2017

Good news… we had a fabulous breakfast in the hotel, included with the trip. The offerings were so varied and great quality, for a change. As many know, I am a tea drinker and there were so many choices, both tea bags and loose tea infusions, so I was in tea heaven. The breads, pastries, fruit, eggs, Spanish frittata and probably five kinds of ham. There were six different kinds of salts and five kinds of pepper to grind. This is something I have never seen, even in the US.

After breakfast, we went to the old part of the city. So far, all we have seen is contemporary construction. The walled Santa Cruz area was the Jewish Quarter, populated since 100 AD. They lived there until they were expelled in 1492. The streets were a labyrinth, as is typical in so many of the old neighborhoods. There was a power outage, keeping us from exploring some of the buildings.

We walked to the Royal Palace, started in the 12th century, although there are remnants of Roman viaducts from centuries before. The Christian king, Peter I, was enamored with the Sultan of Granada, which is why the decor of the first floor of the Palace has so much Arab influence. Upstairs, the motif is totally different, but it was added in the 16th century. You can tell by the lack of mosaics, tapestries and bright colors.

The gardens are quite lovely, with many different trees, a maze of hedges and a number of ornamental plants. It is a good place to relax. From there, we went to the River area, where we boarded a river boat for a leisurely float. The scenery was pleasant, but unremarkable. Time for a nap.

When we returned back to the hotel, we noticed that some of my hives have a reddish ring around them. Could it be ringworm? Thank you Google and WebMD, but we still aren’t totally sure. Luckily, we happened to have just the ointment for a fungus with us. Hopefully, we will see some change soon.

Okay, now the good news… We went to a Flamenco performance this evening that was fantastic. The dancers were very accomplished and we found out that the main male dancer, Emilio Ramirez, is famous throughout Spain and beyond as the best Flamenco dancer in the world. How fortunate to be able to see him, and the entire company. Not sure if the pictures tell all, as the lighting wasn’t very bright, except for those in the spotlights. Trust me, however.

Back to the hotel for dinner. Europeans eat quite late, which we don’t like much. The meal was not to our liking, so it was a good thing we had a hearty lunch. Looking forward to another good breakfast, though, as we leave at 8:45 for Cordoba in the morning.

Caseres and Seville

 Caseres and Seville – May 20, 2017

We left Madrid this morning, sadly. Our time there was most enjoyable. We would recommend a visit there to anyone contemplating Spain as a destination.

Our first stop was a three hour ride to Caseres, a Medieval town southwest of Madrid. On the way, we passed three castles and, depending on the shape of the towers, we knew who built them. Square towers for Arab conquerors and round towers for Spanish. The last one had both, meaning that both had a hand in building the castle.

We climbed the tower to get a better view and peered out the narrow windows, made for attacking the enemy, yet acting as a hindrance for the enemy to hurt anyone inside. At the very top, there was a mirador, or rooftop area, where we could see the city, as well as the countryside. The more modern part, outside of the walled area, is where most of Caseres lives.

We experienced the local Festival de Los Aves, or bird festival, with presentations, face painting and information about birds of all kinds. There was a wedding in the main church and we got a glimpse of how the well-dressed Spaniard looks. Pretty snazzy…

After lunch at a plaza-side restaurant, we are on our way to Seville. The drive is about three hours of beautiful country, with hills, a castle or two and a sunny sky. The bus is comfortable, has Wi-Fi, so the time passes quickly. We stopped at a “truck” stop that was fabulous. The coffee bar has latte, espresso and cappuccino, plus fresh croissants and tapas. The attached store has dozens of kinds of hams, olive oils, pâtés and so much more. Surprisingly, it doesn’t remind you of Howard Johnson’s of days past.

Our hotel is a lovely upscale property not far from the city center. There are lots of trees, what seems to be an excellent public transportation system, and because the city is flat, bike and rollerblade designated routes alongside the roads. And, they are well-used. After a shower, we had dinner provided. It wasn’t great, but by the time you are eating at 9:30 or 10:00 PM, the last thing is a heavy meal. Ready for bed…

Madrid – Day 5

Madrid, Day 5 (Last day) – May 19, 2017

We started out quite lazy today, getting up, having a couple cups of coffee and tea, and finally getting out around 10:00. We decided that a McDonalds breakfast was in order (don’t roll your eyes). They had an Iberian ham and salami sandwich that was typical of Spain and very tasty. Jim had a Sausage McMuffin, so at least one of us didn’t go whole hog American.

We decided to walk over to where we would be meeting our tour of Andalusia early tomorrow morning. It was only a 15-20 minute walk, under a blue, blue sky, with a little wind, but not bad. We found out that during the Andalusia tour, our time in Toledo is short, only lunch. We found a half day tour starting this afternoon, so we made a last minute decision to go.

Until we leave at 3:00, we walked over to the Temple of Debod, an Egyptian temple brought from Egypt. It was built from 175-150 BC, but brought to Spain much later as thanks for the Spanish help in building the Aswan Dam. The original hieroglyphics are present, for the most part. Located in a beautiful park setting, the views of the city were breathtaking.

Time for a little lunch. Walking a bit north, we found the Calle Princesa, an area filled with restaurants and small shops. Continue on our “made in the USA” theme, we ate in adjoining restaurants, Jim in Taco Bell and me in a Chipotle knock off. We subconsciously figured that the rest of the trip in Spain would be all Spanish food, so we gave our tummies a treat.

Returning to the location of our tour bus after lunch, the bus full of passengers made its way through Madrid, mainly underground. No stop lights, minimal traffic. All cities should adopt this way to traverse across town. The bus comes up for air in the Madrid suburbs, replete with US style homes in communities.

As we are traveling the one hour to Toledo, we are told that it still has the remnants of three cultures, Muslim, Jewish and Christian. Traffic is delaying our arrival, leaving less time there. Once we arrived, we took six escalators to get into the walled city. So glad we didn’t have to hoof it. Once inside, we walked the narrow streets to the main cathedral. It is the second largest in all of Spain. We couldn’t get inside, but the outside is quite ornate, of the same era and style as the Notre Dam in Paris. Started in 1226, it was finally finished in 1493. Now, there’s a long term construction project!

You can’t miss the Jewish Quarter. On many walls and in between the cobblestones, there are tiles noting the area in Hebrew words or a menorah. At one time, one third of the population of Toledo was Jewish and they worked comfortably side by side with their Muslim and Christian neighbors.

The shops carry items with Jewish themes, but there are only a handful of actual Jews living there. We visited a former synagogue, which was a mosque before, hence the Moorish influence, and is now a Catholic meeting place. It was built in the 13th century. At one time, there were ten synagogues inside the walled city.

Before leaving, we were taken to a presentation (really sales opportunity) to see the artisans work with gold wire to make inlaid jewelry, plates and decorative items. The shop had reproductions of Spanish armour, swords and knives, as well. No doubt, they would have been a great addition to anyone’s household. It would have been a slight struggle through security at the airport.

In the end, Toledo was a bit disappointing. It had a Disney feel, which was not expected, making it seem manufactured, rather than real, although it was.

We were dropped off near our apartment, fortunately, as it was 9:00 PM and we needed to eat and get back to pack for our 7:30 AM meet up. Dinner was the culmination of “all American, all day,” with a fabulous, greasy burger at Five Guys, recently voted the best hamburger chain in the US. The place was jammed and by the time we left, there was a huge line to get in. Good timing on our part!

We are now packed, showered and ready for the morning bus trip to Caseres and Córdoba.

Madrid – Day 4

Madrid, Day 4 – May 18, 2017

We have heard from many of you and appreciate your positive comments. Keeping track of what we have been enjoying is a great way to remember all the good adventures. When I re-read previous journals, I am amazed at how many events I forgot. And, you are only receiving a fraction of the pictures. Eventually, I will compile all of them into a book about this trip.

After a difficult time last night with nausea and little sleep, we slept in. By the time we got going, I was feeling better. A stop at a Farmacia to get some antacids also helped.

We took a leisurely walk to the Museum Reina Sofia, just past the Prado Museum. It rained last night, but by the time we got out, the sky was clear. It has cooled down a bit, though, expecting around 67 in the PM. This museum is noted for one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous paintings, Guernica, the tormented mural of the devastation caused in 1939 by bombs that hit the Spanish town, killing 1,300 and injuring another 1,000 in just three hours. He worked on the images for a long time, and the drawings of how each image developed is part of the exhibit.

When you read about the symbolism and the power the mural generates, you can understand how Picasso’s legacy continues. His view of women and pain are evident in his work. It was a marvel.

It is now 2:00 and time for lunch. There was a restaurant called Steakburger nearby. By now, we were ready for a yummy burger. You could pick the weight, type of bun, how to prepare it (rare, medium, well) and you have a choice of ground beef or ox meat. The waitress said ox is tastier, so we shared a larger one of ox. It was great! Another new adventure. We walked back and near the plaza near the apartment, we enjoyed sitting outside of a coffee bar to relax and people watch. By now, I was definitely feeling the lack of sleep, so we headed home for a nap!

Eating late is a European tradition. It is 8:00 and we are heading out to dinner. In Ajijic, you are just about done and home by 9:30! We decided to go to the rooftop of El Corte Ingles, the department store. There were many choices, including tapas, seafood, gourmet hot dogs, sushi, pizza, and tacos. We settled on three different kinds of pizza in oblong cuts that we shared. Between the food, drink and the incredible views, we enjoyed an unrushed two and a half hours of conversation.

Home in our apartment and we are feeling good. Tomorrow is our last day in Madrid, so we will find something fun. Our impression of Madrid is totally positive. We love the energy, multicultural atmosphere, beautiful architecture, history and we can actually converse here. Saturday, we leave for our tour of Andalusia, cities in southern Spain. It will provide another level of Spanish life.