Wednesday, June 19, 2013

18 & 19 Jun 13 – Day 12 & 13 (Madrid)

Today was the last day of our trip and we didn’t have to check-out till 11am so Kim and I got up slightly later and went for slightly later breakfast before heading out to the nearby super mart. Ever since we bought the mini bottles of olive oil, Kim had been hunting for extras but no luck. Fortunately for her, the super mart had those and Kim bought a few more. Returned to the hotel and bumped into the family with the small boy. They were on the way out to another direction to check out some shops they saw the evening before. Got back to the room, did another round of packing to make sure I got everything into the luggage and those that could not be hand carried be put into the check-in luggage. Message little big sis and got to know that the haze in Singapore had worsen over the last few days. I knew about the haze when friends posted about it on FB.

When it was about time to check-out, we did one last round of checks around the room before proceeding down to the lobby. Today we were supposed to take the local coach to the airport so we had to wait for it to arrive. As the lobby was small, some of the members chose to wait outside. There were two seats in the area between the two glass doors, one connecting the lobby, the other connecting the street. Kim and I chose to sit there with our luggage. I took random shots while she used the Internet connection. Most of the members commented that we had the best seats and some of them asked us to help them look after their luggages which were placed opposite us while they waited in the lobby.

The local coach was really late and when it finally arrived, we quickly loaded our luggage and boarded the coach. While on our way to the airport, Nancee told us that those who needed to do tax refund would have to follow her to a counter to settle the paperwork before checking-in their luggage and those who didn’t need to, can proceed to check-in on their own. So once we reached the airport which was rather fast, all the members except Mr and Mrs Goh, Kim and I, followed Nancee to do the tax refund. After we had done the check-in, we bumped into Nancee who told us that we need to cater about 45 minutes to catch the airport bus to another terminal to board the plane. So we looked at the time and decided that we had some time to spare. Walked around the airport and realized that most of the shops were closed due to renovation.

We saw the shop “Loewe” and Kim went into the shop to find out the prices of the two bags that her sis was eyeing on. After knowing the prices, Kim went on to message her sister to find out if she wanted to buy. So during the time of waiting, I popped into a duty free shop to get a box of Spanish chocolate and then into another shop to get a UK edition of the Cosmopolitan that came with a free pair of shades while Kim went to get snacks from KFC. Then it was about time to get to the platform to wait for the airport bus and just when we reached the platform, Kim’s sister replied telling her to get the bags but it was too late for that.

At the platform, it stated that it would take about 30 minutes to get to the other terminal. Airport bus came and we boarded it to go to the other terminal for our flight. When the airport bus stopped, we thought it was not our stop to alight so we continued to sit because only about 10-15 minutes had passed. An older man who sat next to us told us that it was the final stop and we should alight. He then tried to help direct us to the correct place to get to our gate. While we were on the escalator to go up to the ground floor, there was another board that indicated that it would take about 20 minutes to get to our gate.

After we reached the ground floor, again, most of the shops were closed due to renovation. Within the next 10 minutes, we were in front of the designated gate so I sat to read my magazine while Kim ate her snacks and shared some with me. Soon, members came strolling to the area in front of the gate to wait for boarding. Again, Mrs Chia was complaining about the shops being closed for renovation.

Soon it was time to board the plane and I spent the next many hours either dozing off, sleeping, eating or watching movies. Touched down in Singapore in the late afternoon and I could smell the haze once out of the plane. Little big sis came with BIL to pick me up and I spent that night at her place, sorting out my things and doing the laundry.

Thoughts: The whole trip was so-so compared to my previous two Europe trips. I guess it was because this trip focuses more on big cities rather than small towns and country sides which would have provided nicer sceneries. 

Will I go back to visit Spain and Portugal? Maybe. Maybe not.

Click here for more photos of the trip.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

17 Jun 13 – Day 11 (Toledo and Madrid)

This morning we set off to Toledo, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 for its extensive cultural and monumental heritage and place of coexistence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures. We stopped just outside of Toledo to appreciate the city as whole from afar where we could see the Tagus River. Took photos and walked over to the Puente de San Martín or St Martin's Bridge in English, which is a medieval bridge across the river Tagus to get into Toledo.

After that, we continued on by coach to get to a Damascene workshop where a staff showed and explained to us how damascene was made. Shortly after, we were brought to the showroom where there was lots of damascene jewelry of various levels. The first level is mainly factory made and as the level progresses, it indicates that the piece of jewelry has more workmanship. I bought a level one bracelet for M while I bought a pair of level two earrings for myself. There were also wrist watches and pocket watches for sale but because the shop is more on damascene artwork and not on watches so I didn't see the point of getting one.

We were supposed to leave by certain timing but some of the group members were still busy choosing their pieces while some were trying to made arrangement for the tax refund. Finally we left after much delay and go further into Toledo and along the way; we passed by the Puerta de Bisagra. Then we had to go on foot to the Toledo Cathedral. It was a cloudy day and so I had a hard time getting the perfect photo on the cathedral. Inside the cathedral were many chapels and we were only introduced to a few. We saw the Retable of the Cathedral, the vaulted ceiling, high altar, and reja of the main chapel, in one of the chapels, we saw the grand stand that was used to hold the bible and there were two levels of chairs with different carvings. Also saw painting in the ceiling and the El Transparente of the Cathedral. Unfortunately, the dark lightings didn’t allow us to appreciate these in full. Done with the cathedral and we went to the souvenir shop just across the street for some of us to use the toilet and while waiting, I managed to get another pair of damascene ear-studs. Cut through more small alleys and then we were back to the coach to go back to Madrid.

Reached Madrid and we were driven to the restaurant where we had tapas for lunch. There were altogether 8 dishes which consisted one on seafood; one on salad, one on Tortilla Española, one on sausages, one on mushrooms, one on squid, one on paella and one on creamy potato (I think) and finally end off with a small bowl of ice-cream. After lunch, we headed to the Royal Palace of Madrid and saw a street performer dressed in uniform pretending to be headless. Went into the palace and local guide said that big haversacks had to be put into a locker and so Mr Goh and I followed the local guide to the locker place where I put a 1 Euro for a big locker enough for two haversacks. The local guide pushed the door to the upper locker closed so that I wouldn’t knock my head after collecting the key. So happened that a 1 Euro coin dropped out from that door and she handed it to me, saying it was my lucky day. After that, we joined the rest at the entrance to the palace. A tourist took a photo at the entrance and was told by the security guard that no photos allowed. Apparently, no photography is allowed inside the palace and not even near the entrance of the palace. So this was one of the palace tours where all of us paid full attention to the local guide’s explanation.

After the tour ended, Madeline and the local guide reminded me to collect the haversacks from the locker. So I hurried over with Mr Goh to collect the haversacks and my 1 Euro coin which I had deposited earlier. Then we were given time in the souvenir shop to use the toilets and to do some shopping. Nothing to get so went outside to the Plaza de la Armería to take photos of the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Almudena Cathedral. It was a day with nice blue sky and white clouds and with the black and gold street lamps at the plaza, I took many shots. So glad with the invention of the digital camera, otherwise, multiple shots would be impossible.

Then we made a trip over to the Plaza de España (Madrid), where we saw the Cervantes Monument dedicated to Spanish novelist, poet and playwright Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The tower portion of the monument includeed a stone sculpture of Cervantes, which overlooks bronze sculptures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Next to the tower, there were two stone representations of Don Quixote's "true love", one as the simple peasant woman Aldonza Lorenzo, and one as the beautiful, imaginary Dulcinea del Toboso. There was a fountain behind the monument and so Kim and I hurried over to the back to try to snap a few shots. However, we could get far back enough to capture the whole monument with the fountain and also we were facing the sun, thus getting that perfect photo was impossible.

After we boarded the coach, Nancee told us that driver has kindly agreed to take us to see the Madrid Stadium, which was also called the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. This was to satisfy some of the die-hard Real Madrid football fan. We alighted outside the stadium and again, all of us tried to take photo of the stadium. But because we were too close to it, the best we could do was to take a photo of the name of the stadium and the logo of the Real Madrid F.C. Then we continued our journey to the Plaza Mayor, passing by the Puerta de Alcalá. After we alighted, Nancee told the group to gather back at the pick-up point at 8:30pm sharp because it was the driver’s last day with us and if there was going to be any delay, it would be against the law or some sort. She was pretty firm about punctuality this time, saying that if she didn't see us at 8:30pm, the driver would just drive off. After having said that, she also assured the group that they would have plenty of time to shop at the airport the next day.

The local guide then led us to the Plaza Mayor and along the way, we saw the Kilometre Zero of Spain, which was in the centre of the Puerta del Sol of Madrid and we also saw the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree which the local guide told us has since became a representation of Madrid. Reached Plaza Mayor and there was the Casa de la Panadería. We also saw three street performers at the plaza pretending to be three heads on a dish on a table. From there, we were given free time to roam around till 8:30pm.

So Kim and I roamed around, trying to be systematic in our roaming. Along the way, we saw more street performers who pretended to be floating on air. Then we went to the Kilometre Zero spot for photos before doing more shopping. There were a lot of people everywhere and so we didn't really pop into any shops, only randomly popped into one souvenir shop to do some last minute souvenir shopping. After we were done choosing and paying for our purchases, there was only about 45 minutes left before 8:30pm and we were not even half done with the Downtown, plus we still needed to hunt for dinner. Kim still had one more cup noodle to finish, so again I had to get snacks as dinner. In the end, we decided to go to the traditional pastry shop recommended by the local guide to get some pastries and then to KFC to get more snacks. The pastry shop was so traditional that they used paper and string to wrap our purchases instead of using paper boxes.

Slowly made our way back to the pick-up point and stopped by at the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree for some photos. There were 15 more minutes before 8:30pm, so Kim and I just wandered around the place and took some random shots just to keep ourselves occupied. Finally, the rest of the group gathered back and surprisingly, all of us came back. Got back to the hotel, Nancee told us there was a small super mart near the hotel and so a few of us followed her there. As Kim and I had nothing to buy, we went off on our own after knowing the location of the super mart.

Once we got to the room, we quickly checked the floor. The visible tag was gone but Kim said the one at the side of the bed was still there. It seemed that the so-called housekeeping was only to clean what was visible. The only consolation was that the floor wasn't dusty anymore. I bought three pieces of pastries and one of them was so sweet that I didn't finish it. Fortunately, the other two were quite nice and tasty. After eating, did some packing so that we didn't have to rush through the packing the next day.

Thoughts: Toledo was a nice place and I was very interested in the art of damascene. It would have been great if we were given more detailed explanation of the art and also a demonstration of it. I supposed it was such a fine art that workmanship is high so much so that the finer pieces are very highly priced. If little big sis is still working and one who likes to wear jewelry, I would have bought a nice piece for her. The weather was not good enough for us to appreciate the Toledo cathedral. If possible, I do hope to return there for a visit again.

I was really happy about picking up the 1 Euro. Strictly speaking, I didn’t pick that up; it was the local guide who did. Still, it was really nice to be told that it was I who did and that truly made my day. Madrid downtown was really crowded and unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to plough through those people to explore the place.

Monday, June 17, 2013

16 Jun 13 – Day 10 (Salamanca and Segovia)

This morning we had the Salamanca city tour and we started off with visiting the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca. It was considered as the most beautiful plaza in Spain. Then we went to the New Cathedral and the Old Cathedral, which exist just next to each other. The local guide told us about the astronaut and the ice-cream eating gargoyle that are hidden in the carvings of the lateral entrance of the cathedral. It turns out that both the astronaut and the gargoyle are details added by the craftsmen in charge of doing some restoration work on the Cathedral in 1992.

Breezed through the cathedral and we moved on to the University of Salamanca, passing by the Church of the Clergy. We were brought to small plaza to see main piece of the University: La Puerta de Salamanca, the University’s façade. It is carved out of stone, with a highly decorative style and intricate carvings. Of the numerous carvings, we saw the Catholic Kings and were asked to find the frog on a skull. Only a couple of us managed to find the frog. It was said that whoever finds the frog will be able to graduate from the University. The local guide also told us that people choose to come to this university to study Spanish because it is cheap and also it is more authentic without the heavy accent. Nearby we saw the Statue of Fray Luis de León facing the University and the building behind the statue used to be a hospital.

We saw a lot of red writings on the walls and it turns out that students would write the 6-letters VICTOR on the wall to celebrate their graduations. It means Victory. Some were simple while some were elaborated and in very nice fonts. Moving on we saw the Casa de las Conchas and through some small alleys, we passed by some souvenir shops where they sell a lot of earrings, rings and accessories of a design called Charro button. The local guide said that in olden days, people used to wear accessories of this design. Made a mental note of it and decided that I would come back to this shop to get rings for M and myself. Finished off the city tour by returning to the Plaza Mayor where we were given time to explore.

Told Kim that I would like to go back to that shop to get rings and we tried to trace our steps. Unfortunately, we got lost half way because we couldn’t remember which alley to take. So in the end, we just popped into a random shop that sells accessories of that design. Compared to the other shop, this had a smaller range of accessories. Browsed through the rings, tried them on and selected one for M. Then looked through the pinky rings and basically there were only about one to two designs so I was just trying on for size. The shop owner tried to help but again due to language barrier, he just left me to try the ring. Quickly paid for my purchases and went back to the plaza to meet up with the rest. While waiting, Kim asked Mr Chia to help us take a photo together with the modern bronze statue of Architects who redesigned the Plaza Mayor. The rest of the group came back and we set off for our next destination, Segovia.

After we reached Segovia, we were hurried to the designated restaurant for lunch. While walking, we saw many vintage cars passing by. Apparently there was a vintage car event going on. Got to the restaurant, we were told that we need to pay for the drinks. Therefore, each one ordered their own drinks which means I had to drink a bottle of coke on my own. Lunch was cochinillo, Spanish suckling pig, specialty of Segovia. They brought the roasted pig out for us to take photos before smashing a plate to cut the pig to be distributed. Unlike the one that BIL bought during Chinese New Year, this was really juicy and tender and the meat just came off from the bone with the slight push of the fork.

Towards the end of the meal, our local guide came to meet us. He spoke very good English and we started the city tour with the visit to the Aqueduct of Segovia. We had to climb a flight of stairs to get to the top where we got good view. After the aqueduct, the local guide pointed out the The Dead Woman Mountain. A mountain range that separate Segovia from Madrid. Next, we saw the House of the Picos, which reminded me of Toblerone chocolate. Saw the city's old prison which has now been converted into public library, St. Stephen's Church, Roman Catholic Church in the city of Segovia and ended off at Plaza Mayor where we were given time to take photos and do some shopping. Popped into a souvenir shop and bought two magnets depicting pigs before taking photos of the Segovia Cathedral and Teatro Juan Bravo, which is the city’s theater.

Then we headed off to visit the Alcázar of Segovia, which was the inspiration for the castle at Disneyland. There were many rooms with different designs and decorations. I guessed all ancient castles have the same kind of concepts; different rooms have different designs and decorations to represent the different functions of the rooms. Tried to take some photos while following the local guide and listening to his explanations but as usual, I could only catch here and there. Soon we were done with the place and we had to leave for Madrid. The local guide led us back to where the coach was and while walking, Kim made small talks with the local guide, asking questions here and there. Finally, we reached the car park where we passed by a statue depicting a Candido cutting the suckling pigs with a plate, showing how tender the meat was. We boarded the coach, waved goodbye to the local guide and we were on our way to Madrid where we checked into a hotel called Foxa 25.

It was a rather old hotel with rooms that came with kitchen and living room. After settling down, we went down to the restaurant for our dinner before retiring back to our room for the night. Upon closer inspections, it seemed that the room was not properly clean. The floor was dusty, we even saw label tags on the floor and the bathroom shower facility was rather shaky. Lucky for Kim, she brought bathroom slippers while I had to endure the dirty floor. 

Thoughts: Both Salamanca and Segovia are considered small towns so I like them more compared to bigger cities. City tours were too fast to really appreciate the beauty of the small towns. Hopefully I will get to visit these beautiful towns again. The hotel was a big disappointment. It would have been really nice if the housekeeping was done properly and the facilities well maintained.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

15 Jun 13 – Day 9 (Fatima)

Today we left Lisbon to go to Fatima to visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima. Read about it before the trip and was kind of looking forward to the visit. Before we actually went to the Shrine, we made a stop at the main souvenir center where one can get things like magnets, small bottles of holy water, rosaries, and figurines of Virgin Mary and so on. We were each given a slip of paper when we alighted from the coach. Turned out that it entitled us to a free mini figurine of the Virgin Mary each. 

Left the center and got to the Shrine. There were a lot of people when we got there. Nancee told us that we should try to go and see The Chapel of Apparitions because that is the place where Virgin Mary was said to appear before the three children, the Blessed Francisco Marto, Blessed Jacinta Marto and Sister Lúcia. The exact location of the apparitions is marked by a marble pillar which holds a statue of the Virgin Mary. Tried to get a photo of that but I couldn't get near enough. Walked towards the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary and took photos along the way. Kim and I went into the Basilica but subsequently we walked separate ways because I took a long time to admire the surroundings and followed the queue to see main altar and the tombs of the three children.

We then went to look for the section of the Berlin wall which Nancee was telling us about. Finally found it, took a picture of it and walked on to the Church of the Santíssima Trindade also known as the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in English. Outside of the church was a tall cross by Robert Schad of Germany, Statue of Pope John Paul II by Czesław Dźwigaj of Poland and few other artworks. Didn't go into the church to see and just walked around to snap photos of the exterior of the Basilica and the surroundings while Kim walked her way. Saw some pilgrims approaching the shrine along the designated path on their knees and one of them was carrying a baby in her arms.

Then it was time to gather so I hurried to the meeting point, worrying that I was late. Fortunately, I was not the last one to arrive. The restaurant for our lunch was just behind the Church of the Most Holy Trinity. While walking there, I saw many other structures and monuments. We were told lunch was Bacalhau, salted codfish, a Portuguese specialty. I had that while I was in Macau a few years ago and I remembered that it was really salty that KC, SWT and I left that dish untouched after tasting it. So I thought this time round it was going to be that one whole salted fish again.

We were served soup first which was tasty. Then came the main course, to my surprise, the way they prepared it was to cook the shredded bacalhau with mashed potato. This greatly reduced the saltiness of the bacalhau and hence I actually asked for second helping of it. We ended the lunch with a piece of cake each before continuing our journey back into Spain, Salamanca to be specific. During one of the rest stop, Nancee bought a big box of cherries which was in season to share with the members. I took a few while Kim turned down the offer politely because she only eats strawberries. 

Got into Salamanca and we headed for our Chinese dinner. Compared to the last two rounds of Chinese dinner, this had got to be the best. At the end of the dinner, we had cherries again and since most at the table were not into cherries. Nancee suggested that I packed them back to eat in my room. Great idea! Finally we reached our hotel. Nancee told us that there was a Carrefour nearby and so went over to get water as well as some Spanish chocolate as souvenirs. Returned to the hotel to settle for the night and after my shower, I sat down to relax and eat my cherries.

Thoughts: Finally got to visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, which so many people told me about. A pity I didn't get to explore the place thoroughly due to time constrain again. Will I go back again? I hope to if it is along the way if I do go back to visit parts of Spain and/or Portugal. I am not a Catholic, I am a free thinker. But I studied in a catholic school before and so I like singing hymns but not attending mass. 

I like the way the bacalhau was prepared but too bad I can’t find bacalhau in Singapore, otherwise, I would probably try to re-create the dish on my own.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

14 Jun 13 – Day 8 (Lisbon)

As usual, I messaged little big sis while waiting for my turn to wash up. Got down for breakfast and Kim said that we should check with the reception counter how to get back to the hotel from Rossio Square in case there were not enough people to form the optional tour. So after eating, we collected our stuff from the room and proceeded to the lobby. The lift took very long to reach our level and so we decided to take the stairs where we saw this interesting phrase “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” when we reached the lobby. Approached the reception counter and the friendly receptionist gave us the maps and explained to us which station to board and alight as well as the direction to walk back to the hotel.

This morning we went on the city tour and our tour guide spoke very good English. She explained to us that the Portuguese speak pretty good English because of its geographic location. Portugal is located at the end of the Europe continent, is nearer to the United Kingdom and so has good relationship with the UK. Spain, on the other hand, is nearer to France and so is influenced by the French which explains why the Spanish tends to use more of their own language rather than converse in English even with tourists.

Along the way, we passed by The Column of Pedro IV and saw the 25 de Abril Bridge with Cristo-Rei on one end. Finally, we got to the Belem Tower or the Tower of St Vincent where we also saw the Monument to the First South Atlantic Aerial Crossing. From there, we could see the 25 de Abil Bridge again. Took many photos of the bridge, the Belem Tower and the surroundings. Walked around the place and saw a street artist selling his paintings. The Sim family stood around him and finally bought a small artwork from him.

Near to the designated meeting place, there were some souvenir shops where I bought a couple of magnets made of porcelain and cork as well as two postcards made of cork. I was sure that M will appreciate those. We boarded the coach to the next stop which was actually not very far. It was the Padrão dos Descobrimentos also known as Monument to the Discoveries in English. Near the monument was the Compass Rose Square with the world map on the floor. From there, we could see the Jerónimos Monastery which was our next stop. The local guide told us that next to the monastery was a shop that came out with the first original Portuguese egg tart recipe. From then on, many other shops try to imitate the recipe and thus resulting in so many shops selling Portuguese egg tarts.

Boarded the bus again to go to the monastery and it took quite a while to get there even though it was actually just across the streets. Along the way, passed by the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, a place where researches for cure to cancers take place. Got to the monastery and the local guide gave explanations while we walked through the place. Didn't catch a lot of the details because I was taking photos. Only remembered the place for the confession. Unlike the others where confession takes place in a box-like room, the priest sits inside a room with a door with a few holes arranged in the shape of a cross, the confessor then knee outside the room and gave his confession. Kim and I were puzzled; won’t the other people see the confessor and hear the confession?

After the tour inside the monastery, we were given time to explore the 2-storey claustro as well as to grab lunch before gathering again to go for the optional tour. Kim and I spent a long time at the claustro taking photos, trying to get the best view and eventually left with only just enough time to get lunch. We walked along the street which the local guide pointed out earlier where we could find food. Couldn't decide what to eat and then a waitress called out to us and explained the menu. Food looked good and since she spoke good English and explained the dishes in details, we decided to eat lunch at the shop. We were seated outside under the big umbrella and I ordered the Codfish in cream and cheese while Kim ordered the Calamari with fries and rice. Then we saw Mr and Mrs Chia eating in the next restaurant.

Our food took a long time to serve and when they were finally served, we took photos and the nice waitress helped us took photos with our food. Gobbled our lunch quickly and asked for the bill. Kim offered to settle the bill first while I went to the loo in the shop. Quickly got back to Kim and walked back to the meeting place. Along the way, took more photos with the pretty flowers and park.

Boarded the coach to continue with the optional tour and Nancee said the whole group opted for the tour and so the local guide was able to follow us through. It was also decided that after the optional tour, we would be dismissed at the Baxia for the free evening. On the way, we traveled along the Alantic Ocean and saw the beaches. The local guide explained to us about the different colored flags with regard to the condition of the sea for that day.

Started the optional tour with the Cascais and we passed through centre of Cascais to reach the fishing pier. Beside the fishing pier was the Fisherman’s beach called Praia dos Pescadores. Walked pass the fishing pier and we saw the Cascais Citadel which consists of Fort of Nossa Senhora da Luz and Torre de Santo António Cascais. Nearby was the Statue of Dom Carlos, King of Portugal in 1826. We were given some time to walk around and take photos before continuing on. While on the coach, the local guide told us about the rooster that was commonly found on magnets. It turned out that legend has it that a pilgrim was on his way to pay pilgrimage and a young girl took a fancy on him but he paid no attention to her. The girl became furious and decided to steal the money from the church and hid it beneath the pilgrim’s bed to frame him. He was caught and brought to the mayor who was having roasted rooster for dinner. The pilgrim said that he was innocent and just then; the rooster came back alive with feathers and all and started roosting. The girl was then caught but the pilgrim forgave her. So the rooster is now a symbol to ward off people who envy the others. 

Traveled along the Atlantic Ocean again and we were given a photo stop. Before we alighted, the local guide told us that it was going to be extremely windy and chilly so she advised us to wear a light jacket and hold on tightly to our stuff. Got down and sure enough, it was extremely windy and I was almost blown off my feet. My first thought was that small Lynda would probably be blown off if she was there. Took photos while trying to hold on to my bag and my hair. At the end of it, all of us looked like mad men and women with all our wind-blown hair.

We continued on to the westernmost of the Europe continent and the local guide told us that we could get a nice certificate for an amount of Euros from the tourist information center to certify that we were at the westernmost of the Europe continent. Reached Cabo da Roca, Kim and I quickly took photos with the monument that declares Cabo da Roca as the westernmost extent of continental Europe before the group came crowding. We also saw the Cabo da Roca Lighthouse from afar and the local guide told us that we were not allowed to go up to the lighthouse. Walked around the surroundings, took photos before going back to the designated meeting place to board the coach to go to the Baxia. The local guide told us that because Portugal is near the sea, their cuisine is mainly seafood and they don’t do frying, mainly baking and grilling. Salted codfish is their specialty and it was said that Portuguese cook codfish in different styles 365 days. Also sardines happened to be in season and the way they eat is by grilling without removing the insides. 

Got to the Baxia, Kim and I wandered around, taking photos of the street performers, the Santa Justa Lift and did some shopping. We were done with shopping about 8+pm and went to look for dinner. Kim wanted to finish up her cup noodle and said she will only get some snacks from MacDonald’s. So I had to get my own dinner. Didn’t want to eat fast food and so suggested that I would get egg tarts from the café Nichola and shared the snacks from MacDonald’s. Bought nuggets and Chicken MacBites before heading to café Nichola. I ordered an egg tart and a custard tart while Kim ordered another egg tart.

Went to Rossio station and tried to buy tickets from the machine. There were English instructions and we followed through. We indicated and paid for two tickets but only one came out. We figured that perhaps the “two” refers to round trip and so Kim agreed to take that while I get the correct ticket. Went to the platform and waited. There were some passengers on the platform but they were standing towards the other end of the platform. The train came but it only had a few carriages and we had to run to the other end of the platform to board. Unfortunately, the door closed when we reached the last carriage. So had to wait for the next train and this time we stayed put at that end of the platform. Boarded the train and it only took about 15-20 minutes to get back to the station near our hotel. Alighted, figured out the correct exit but had a bit of a problem navigating back to the hotel. While reading the map, we saw the father and son of the Sim family and we asked them for directions. 

Thoughts: Cannot complain too much about today since I got the best of both, the optional tour and going back to the Baxia, and also got to do some shopping. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

13 Jun 13 – Day 7 (Lisbon)

Left Seville behind and we entered into Lisbon of Portugal. The journey took up the whole morning and part of the afternoon and we got to the Baixa which is the Lisbon Downtown in the late afternoon. Along the way, we passed by a couple of monuments such as the Monument to the 1st Marquess of Pombal and the Monument to the Restorers.

The coach then drove through a stretch of road which Nancee said is the place for branded goods. Then it continued down another stretch which is for the more average goods. Finally we were let off at Rossio Square for the free evening and were to report back promptly at the stated time because coaches were not allowed to park at Rossio Square.

There were many small streets leading away from Rossio Square so Kim and I decided to take one of them and thought at the end of the street we could turn right and it would lead us to the next street in a systematic order so that we could cover most if not all of the Baxia. While walking to that small street, we took photo of the Statue of King João I in Figueira Square.

That small street we chose seem rather deserted except for the traffic and it was a rather long street with up slope. Decided to make a right turn to get to the next street and we seem to be lost. Wandered around the different streets and most of the shops were closed. So Kim and I assumed that they were closed for siesta.  Then we saw many people opposite of the street we were at and thought maybe there was a bazaar there so we crossed over to check things out.

There were lots and lots of people crowding both sides of that street and they were holding flowers and candles in their hands. They looked like they were expecting something to happen. We walked further up the street and it got more and more difficult to get through. It was then we saw the Santo António Church, the place where Saint Anthony was born and very close to it is the Lisbon Cathedral. It was then we realized that there could be some religious things going on.

Squeezed our way back to where we came from and along the way saw some stalls selling candles, flowers and figurines of Saint Anthony. Took a quick snap and hurried along. Bumped into Nancee at one point in time and she was telling us that a café called Nichola, which is near the Rossio Square, sells very good Portuguese egg tarts. Finally got to a wider street with more shops and eating places but still most shops were closed. Saw a café called Sao Nicholau and remembered what Nancee said. So popped into the café and happily bought two mini egg tarts each. While taking photos with egg tarts and the café, we saw the old couple, Mr and Mrs Goh. They were sitting outside that café and Mrs Goh was eating a big box of fruits, commenting how cheap it was.

We ate our egg tarts as we walked and went into those shops that were opened. Went into Mango and a couple of other shops and Kim managed to get an item or two while I got nothing. I think the problem with me was that the style didn't suit me. Popped into another shop and we walked separately again. Went to try on a couple of clothing and after I came out, I couldn't find Kim. I walked around the shop a few times and still no sight of her. So instead of waiting around in the shop, I decided to just go ahead and ventured around Baxia on my own. Saw an elevator structure called the Santa Justa Lift in the middle of Baxia and took photos of it. It was interesting to see that in the Downtown of Lisbon. Due to time constrain, I didn't go nearer to check it out. Walked a little bit more and tried to find my way back to Rossio Square. Along the way, saw a café called Nichola, I then realized that perhaps that was the one that Nancee was talking about because she said it is near Rossio Square. 

Crossed the street to Rossio Square and took photos of the fountains and the surroundings which include Theater D. Maria II. Then Kim called out to me and I explained to her that I couldn’t find her in the shop that was why I left, thinking that maybe she went off on her own. She said that she was actually in the fitting room and told me that next time if we went off separately, we would get back to the designated meeting place at the stated time. Agreed. When the rest of the group gathered back, Mrs Chia complained that she wasted time walking over to the stretch of branded shops because most if not all were closed. Some other members were also complaining that a lot of shops were closed. Nancee came along and then explained to us that she only found out that today was a religious holiday. That explained why many shops were closed and traffic was light because many people took leave to get long holiday given that last Monday was their National Day. The coach came; we boarded the coach and went for our Chinese dinner. Compared to the other Chinese dinner we had, this was by far the best. There was a playground outside the restaurant and the group members occupied themselves with it while waiting for the coach. What an interesting sight.

Returned to the hotel and did the usual routine. Asked Kim if she wants to join the optional tour or go back to Baxia on our own and her answer was to join the optional tour because going back to Baxia means we have to figure out how to get back to the hotel on our own. I hesitated to agree with her but she has a point so reluctantly I set aside the sum of money for the optional tour.

Thoughts: From maps, I know Spain and Portugal are next to each other, little did I know that traveling from Seville to Lisbon would take so long. Lisbon Baxia was another lively place to be with many shops and eating places. It was just so unfortunate that today was their religious holiday and we didn't get to shop a lot. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed myself immersed in the sight and sound of the Baxia.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

12 Jun 13 – Day 6 (Seville)

Today we left Granada to travel to the south of Spain to Seville. Had one rest stop where I bought a small bottle of Malaga wine and another glass bottle of olive oil for €3.50 since this was a slightly bigger bottle at the same price as what I had paid for in Montserrat. We got to Seville in the afternoon, checked in to Novotel before going out for lunch. We were told that there was a shopping mall at the corner of the hotel and so Kim and I walked over to look for food. The shopping mall is called Nervión Plaza with two levels and shaped like a “U”. Entered the mall in one corner and there were mostly shops selling clothes. Got to the other side and that was where the restaurants are. We couldn't decide what to eat and I didn't want any Asian food.

So we popped into one of the Spanish restaurants that sell tapas. Fortunately the boss knew how to speak a little English and he started recommending the food. I was a white meat person and so went for the fish dish that he recommended thinking it was a main course from a menu. Kim was more of a red meat person and ordered from the tapas menu. We both knew that tapas means small dishes and so we had the impression that the small dish would be the similar portion as those presented in Korean meals. The boss was afraid that we couldn't understand him and he brought us to the front of the counter to show us the food. In the end, Kim ordered one with chicken, one with pork and one with potatoes.

Waited for our food and soon they came. It turned out that our food came in the same size portion and they were not exactly small dishes nor big as main course. We took photos of our yummy food before digging in. The fish tapas that I was recommended was pretty good with the fish having quite a good texture. After I was done with mine, took some of Kim’s food to taste. The potato dish was good because the sauce was made using salmon. While we were eating, we saw the Sim family of four sitting outside the restaurant trying to place their order with one of the non-English speaking staff. It seems that it took them quite long to finally place their orders. Paid the bill and then we went to shop around Nervion Plaza.

Returned to the hotel to meet up with the rest to leave for our city tour. Our local guide is called Ms America, ironic. Our first stop was to the Plaza de Espana. It was a very big place with many tiled alcoves, each representing a different province of Spain. It also has a nice fountain named the Vicente Traver fountain and many other impressive buildings. Over there, we saw some street vendors paddling their ware such as the wooden clappers and hand fans used in the Flamenco Dance. We spent some time in the Plaza de Espana taking photos before going on to visit the Barrio de Santa Cruz, a former Jewish quarter. There were a lot of small alleys with interesting shops and cafes and I think it would be really nice to hang around or laze in one of the café to enjoy the lazy afternoon. Unfortunately, we didn't have the time and I think I would probably get lost in the quarter. Then we were given some time for toilet break in one of the small square in Santa Cruz, so I bought a small hand fan and a magnet from one of the souvenir shops. Kim was tempted to get the Flamenco shawl which comes in different sizes. Given the price and workmanship, actually it was worth considering. I was tempted myself, however, the rational side got the better of me and I abandoned the idea.

From one of the many small alleys, we came out to Plaza del Triunfo, where we saw more buildings such as Casa de la Provincia, the Giralda, the General Archive of the Indies and others. There were also horse carriages to bring tourists around. From the Plaza, we headed on to the Seville Cathedral, which is largest Gothic cathedral in the world and has 80 chapels. We were shown only a few main ones, the big boxlike choir loft as well as the Tomb of Columbus. The tomb somewhat reminds me of Lord of the Ring, maybe because it was carried by the four kings of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre. The Giralda is just beside the Cathedral but it was under maintenance so we were not able to climb and we didn't get a good photo of it because it was partially covered. Coming out from the Cathedral, we saw some drain-like things on the ground and Ms America explained that because the Cathedral was actually built on a Muslim mosque structure. In the past, Muslims had to wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque hence those drains.

Ended the city tour and it was time to proceed on to the venue for the Flamenco Dance show. As we could only go inside the theater at 6:30pm, we were told to walk around the neighborhood to kill time. But the weather was really unbearable at about 41 degree Celsius, so most if not all of us, went into the nearby supermarket to kill time instead. We only left the supermarket when we saw Nancee making payment at the cashier. While waiting for Nancee at the entrance of the theater, another group of tourists entered the theater so they managed to get the two front rows with tables and good view while we had to settle for the rows at the back. There was another section that is nearer to the stage with no tables and really good views but we were not allocated those because ours include dinner.

The staff from the theater went around taking photos for the guests on each table and I knew that they were likely to sell those back to the guests at a cost. Soon starter came and it was prawn salad. Shortly after the show started and I was busy trying to film some video clips knowing that my camera would have problem capturing moving objects in dark settings. The position that I was at was not ideal because I was either constantly blocked by the big guy on the front row or by moving waitresses. Then main course came and it was roast chicken. Fortunately the chicken was very tender and I was able to tear the meat from the bones easily with fork and knife. I gobbled up my food quickly so that I had more time to do the filming. The dancers were really good and some were really impressive with their footwork. The ladies performed in colorful Flamenco dresses with props such as wooden clappers, hand fans, shawls, walking sticks and so on. Then dessert came and I also gobbled that down. Towards the end of the show, I tried to take some photos and out of the many, only a handful was viewable while the rest were just a blur mess.

Video Clip on Flamenco Dance

After the show ended, we were herded off to the outside of the theater and onto the waiting coach. Along the way, I actually saw a table displaying merchandises such as hand fans; shawls and photos taken earlier before the show. It was really a pity that we had to hurry back to the coach because the driver couldn’t do OT. I was hoping to browse through the merchandises and maybe make a purchase.

Thoughts: Seville was a very lively place and I liked the hotel that we stayed in because it was near to shops and restaurants. Finally I got to eat tapas and I got to say, that was the best meal I had so far other than those at the rest stops. 

Amongst the places we visited today, I like the cathedral the best because it was big and has a lot of chapels. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see all of them and also we didn't get to see much of those introduced in details. Flamenco Dance show was good but would have been better if we were given good seats. Kim and I agreed that we could have done away with the dinner and be seated in the front rows with good views. My impression of the Flamenco Dance was just female dancers dancing with wooden clappers and shawls; I didn't know that there were hand fans and walking sticks too.

Hopefully I can go back to Seville for visit again.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

11 Jun 13 – Day 5 (Granada)

Woke up at 6+am and as usual messaged little big sis. Had breakfast at 7:30am and we left for Granada at 8:30am. Nancee told us the journey would take up the whole morning and that we would have two rest stops where the last one would be for lunch. Most of the time I was either dozing off or looking at the scenery while on the coach. At the first rest stop, I bought some Turron candy which is said to be a Spanish specialty. I was already on the lookout for the candy since I got to Spain. Those in the supermarket that I went came in big blocks uncut and knowing that I might not get many chances to visit supermarket, I better buy some when I see fit. Also saw a lot of bowls, plates, dishes and so on in colorful paintings and was so tempted to buy but again, transporting them back to Singapore is going to be a big problem because I didn't bring bubble wraps.

Continued the journey and soon it was for the second rest stop where we also had lunch. Kim zoomed into chicken dish while I opted for the Hake dish which came with potato wedges and mixed vegetables. It was really yummy. The best meal I had on my own by far. Walked around the shop and found the Rabitos, chocolate covered figs. Read in TripAdvisor that it is another Spanish specialty so bought a box of nine to share with M. Besides olive and olive oil, Spain is also big on fig so I guess that’s why Rabitos is a specialty.

Finally we reached Granada and checked into the Sercotel Gran Luna about 2+pm. Messaged little big sis for a bit and we were out again at 3:20pm to meet the local guide to visit the Alhambra Palace and the Generalife Gardens. The sun was very glaring and it was really hot. There were already many groups of tourists in the Alhambra Palace and I saw a Chinese guy who looked very familiar yet I couldn't recall where I had seen him before. Anyway, after we got in, we were handed the audio guide. We went through the Gardens; saw many beautiful flowers yet taking nice photos of them were not very possible because of the traffic flow and the need to keep up with the local guide. Then walked through the higher Alhambra and we were brought to a small shop where the people there replicate the furniture in the Palace as well as make boxes with Moorish designs. The local guide did some explanations of how the designs were made but I couldn't catch a lot of details. I thought we would be given some time to browse through the stuff but we were hurried to the main section of the Alhambra Palace because apparently there was a given time slot for the tour.

Before the tour began, we were given loo break but Kim and I didn’t need to go. Saw the Palace of Charles V and immediately the design reminded me of chocolate bars so both of us took photos. When the rest of the group was ready, we proceeded to start the tour. Big haversacks had to be carried in front because they were afraid that the big bags might knock on to the intricate columns and stuff. As we walked, the local guide gave brief explanations of each room and their designs. Most of the time I couldn't catch anything partly because the local guide was mumbling and also partly because I was busy taking photos to pay any attention. There were many rooms and now I couldn't remember which was which, just that they were all very beautiful. We were at the Patio of the Lions trying to take photos with The Fountain of the Lions, Kim took a photo for me but because I was carrying my haversack in front and it was an eyesore, she suggested holding it for me while I went to pose.

Took more photos along the way as we made our way back to the place where we came from and along the way saw some people doing photo-shoots in the Palace. We were brought to a souvenir shop to browse. I was a little disappointed because I think that was not the official souvenir shop of the Alhambra Palace. In any case, I didn't get anything there because the main things were boxes of difference sizes featuring the Moorish designs. Then our coach came to fetch us back to the hotel where we had dinner in the hotel restaurant at 7pm. It was buffet style and the food was not bad. However, as usual, I skipped most of the main course and just went for starters and desserts. As Kim and I finished up fast, we left the table, leaving Mr and Mrs Chia, Madeline and Alan to continue with the dinner after paying for the bottle of water for the table, to go to the nearby Hipercor supermarket.

There was also a El Corte Ingles and we remembered Nancee telling us that El Corte Ingles is like a departmental store selling clothes and consumer goods while the Hipercor is something like our Giant. Walked the El Corte Ingles and bumped into Alan and Madeline. Headed to the bag section and I saw a bag similar to the one mum bought for me when I just started working. I held it for a long time, trying to decide if I should buy. Asked the salesperson if there was a new one but we had problem communicating. After a while, I managed to get it that the one I was holding was actually the last piece. Flipped and turned the bag in all directions and finally put it back on the rack. The condition of the bag wasn't tip-top and also the material was quite stiff compared to the one I owned previously. Went to the supermarket and I bought a 2.5 liter of water and a box of five sachets of seafood paella seasoning.

Thoughts: It was a pity that we didn't get to see much of Granada other than the Alhambra Palace and the Generalife Gardens so my impression of Granada is only on the Moorish designs of the buildings. Hopefully I will get to visit the place again.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

10 Jun 13 – Day 4 (Valencia)

Today we had to leave Barcelona to go to Valencia, hence we had to wake up early, eat breakfast early and leave the hotel early. So woke up at 5+pm and messaged little big sis while waiting for Kim to be done. Had breakfast at 7am and this time round dare not eat too much like the first day. Left Barcelona at 8am and my last message to little big sis didn't get send. The journey to Valencia took up the whole morning with one rest stop where I saw the paella pack that consist the pan, the seasoning, the rice and olive oil that cost €15.30. I was really tempted to buy but didn't, thinking that perhaps I might get a chance later in the trip. So just took a photo of it and then left to continue our journey into Valencia.

We got to Valencia and to the restaurant about 1:30pm. The staffs in the restaurant were still having their lunch and hence we were told to return at about 1:45pm instead. So all of us went separate ways to wander around the neighborhood to kill time. Kim and I popped into a toy shop to browse and on the way back we saw two very obedient dogs. They were waiting quietly outside the restaurant for their owners and they really sat very still. Kim and I were very impressed and even though we stood quite close to take photos, they still didn’t budge. Returned to our restaurant and we were served lunch.

Valencia is the place where the Spanish rice dish, paella, originated. So our lunch for the day was seafood paella. We were given hard bread and noodle soup first. Then the big pan of paella was brought out for us to take photos before the kitchen distributed them to us by individual portion. It tasted rather good and I was hoping that I could have second helping. The lunch ended with a piece of chocolate cake which tasted good too. Then we left the restaurant to go to the Towers of Serranos & Quart for photo stop as well as to meet up with the local guide who boarded the coach and gave us information such as history and culture of Valencia and buildings in Valencia as the coach cruised through the city. 

After that, we went on walking tour where the guide brought us to the Mercado Central, a public market in Valencia, 15 minutes before they closed for the day. As the market is big and has many exits, the local guide brought us to the middle where the central dome is and told us to meet back there in 15 minutes. So we went separate ways to explore but most of the stalls were either closed or closing. The market is something similar to the one we saw in Barcelona with many stalls selling different kind of stuff such as fruit cum juice stalls, seafood stalls, meat stalls, snack stalls and even stalls that sell food and people just sit at the bar counter to eat. Near the meeting point, there was a snack stall selling preserved fruits and nuts. Some of the group members actually went to that stall to try some of the snacks and then bought some. 

After the visit to the Mercado Central, we walked over to see the La Lonja de la Seda (The Silk Exchange) which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Saw gargoyles on top of the buildings and were told that they are used for draining purposes. Then we saw San Juan del Mercado which was nearby before being led through the small alleys passing through small restaurants, shops and so on. We were then given sometime at the Town Hall Square called Plaza de la Virgen to take photos. Over there we saw the Basilica of the Virgin of the Helpless, the Valencia Cathedral, the Little Michael Tower and the Turia Fountain. After that we were led through some small alleys again to reach another place where we saw the narrowest house in Europe before passing by Plaza Redonda. Saw some shops selling interesting stuff but we didn't have the time to look around.

Continued on, the local guide then brought us to the place where she recommended a shop for ice cream drinks and so on and told us that we could use the shop’s toilet if we patronize. Then for those of us who are energetic, the local guide recommended us to climb the Little Michael Tower. Nancee also encouraged us to climb because ASA had already paid for the admission fees. So Kim and I as well as a couple of others climb the Tower which has 200+ steps. We got to the top and were rewarded with view of the Valencia City and cool breeze. Took photos here and there before going back down where we took another few quick shots of the interior of the Valencia Cathedral. While walking back to the meeting place, we detoured to a nearby park for a few shots and saw many orange trees. Valencia is famous for its oranges and so orange trees were aplenty. 

The coach came and brought us to Alicante where we spent the night in Holiday Inn. While the coach was leaving Valencia, we managed to catch a glimpse of the Plaza de Toros de Valencia. Reached the hotel, got connected and realized that the message that was not sent out in the morning got sent and it then dawn on me that it was 1am in Singapore. Oops. Nancee told us that there is a supermarket near the hotel and closes at 9:15pm. Dinner was provided in the hotel but the dinner time was 8:15pm. We were served hard bread with salty scrambled egg, two pieces of pork with sauce and ended with chocolate fudge crepes. I only managed to take photos of the starter and dessert. The photo on the main course was too blurry. By the time we finished dinner, it was already the time when the supermarket closes so we didn't get to go. Fortunately, I had the sense to bring my big bottle of water to the hotel room.

Thoughts: Compared to Barcelona, can feel that Valencia is slightly smaller and I find that there are more interesting things that attracted me than those in Barcelona. I like walking in the old Quarter but I think I will get lost if I were to walk alone. Too many small alleys and they look so similar. Saw the paella pans of many different sizes and was again tempted to buy but again no time. Dinner was not fantastic because I was struggling with the two pieces of pork which were very tough.

Monday, June 10, 2013

9 Jun 13 – Day 3 (Barcelona City Tour and Montserrat)

Woke up at 6+am and messaged little big sis while waiting for Kim to be done with the toilet. After she came out, it was my turn to prepare for the day. We went for breakfast at 7am and then left the hotel with the group at 8am for the half day city tour around Barcelona. We met the local guide who boarded the coach and gave us information such as history and culture of Barcelona and buildings in Barcelona as the coach cruised through the city. We had a few photo stops and the first was somewhere near the Las Arenas Shopping Mall which used to be a bullring. According to the local guide, bull fighting is banned in Barcelona although some other cities still have it and bull fighting only occurs in certain months such as July.

Then we boarded the coach again to go up to Montjuïc Hill and along the way, made another photo stop at the Olympic Stadium. Continued to the top of Montjuïc Hill and from the top we could see the Port of Barcelona which consists of Port Vell and the Industrial Port. Saw a sculpture depicting the Sardana dance also known as the Barcelona Catalan Dance while on the way up so Kim and I quickly went over to take photos before the rest of the members came crowding.

We left the Montjuïc Hill to continue with the city tour briefly before going to see the La Sagrada Familia, a Roman Catholic Church, designed by Antoni Gaudi. Along the way, the local guide provided more information which I could not remember much now coz it was really information overloaded. We passed by Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (La Pedrera), The Arc de Triomf and so on but I couldn’t take any photos coz they weren’t on my side, so I depended on Kim to take them. La Sagrada Familia is a church with a very unique design and very interesting to see sculptures of fruits as part of the design.

We were told that different parts of the exterior design represent different things and mainly to tell the story of God, Mary and Jesus. The ceilings and columns inside the church mirror trees and branches. Local guide continued to explain while we moved around the church but again I couldn’t remember most of the details now. Tried to take photos but most didn’t turn out well coz the shutter speed was slow and I had to keep up with the group. Finally we were done with La Sagrada Familia and we proceeded to Barcelona Cathedral where we were only there for photo stop. While we were there, we saw church goers dancing the Sardana dance after their Sunday service. Managed to take a few shots and filmed short video clips of the dance before moving off to have our lunch.

Arrived at Port Olímpic and we were shown the beach, the golden fish sculpture named Peix, the twin tower – Hotel Arts and Torre Mapfre before heading to a restaurant for our seafood lunch. We were told that it consists of seafood salad, main course of prawns and mussels follow by coffee or tea. Kim and I sat with the couple Madeline and Alan. There were bottles of red wine on each table but we didn’t drink. The salad came followed by dishes of seafood such as fish, squid and so on and we shared amongst ourselves. The portions were big and at the end of it, we thought we were already done with lunch until they came out with the prawns and mussels. We thought it was going to be shared but turned out that it was each person a plate. Many of us were already quite full at the end of the seafood salad and so we tried our best to at least finish the prawns. Had espresso at the end of it before leaving the place to go to Montserrat, the optional tour.
We were told that the Montserrat is a multi-peak mountain and located on the mountain is an abbey called Santa Maria de Montserrat which houses the Virgin of Montserrat also known as the Black Madonna. Many people from Catalonia will hike overnight or cycle up to go to the Abbey for Sunday Service or stay there for a few days to experience life living in a monastery. We were also told that the Virgin of Montserrat didn’t use to be black but because of the years of smoke from the candles, it turns black. Many people are willing to queue for a long, long time just to walk pass and pray to the Black Madonna. As the place we were going is of high altitude so Nancee and the local guide told us that we might want to prepare a light jacket. I was glad that I threw the red flannel shirt that I got from Korea last year into the luggage at the last minute so I used that as my light jacket.

Reached the place, got off the coach and it was indeed chilly. We passed by a lot of stalls selling their local products such as cheese, honey, olive oil and some snacks. I was tempted to get the snacks to try but they didn’t come in small packaging.There was a tram station called Funicular de la Santa Cova and we saw a tram bringing people up to the upper part of Montserrat. The Abbey was some distance upslope and most of the members went to the toilet so Kim and I walked ahead to take some photos.

After everyone gathered together, Nancee and the local guide told us that we could have F&E time and those who are the more religious ones might consider queuing to see the Black Madonna. The local guide warned us that at times it could take up to 45 minutes to an hour just to see the Black Madonna and we were only giving a couple of hours of free time. So Kim and I decided to just explore on our own. We went into the Basilica and there were a group of people singing near the altar. So we went to sit on one of the benches to listen and also to look around the Basilica, taking photos and recording the singing. Then a few from the group started dancing to the song. It was quite enjoyable watching them sing and dance.

After some time, we left the Basilica and explored other parts of the monastery. Browsed the souvenir shop and I bought a small bottle of olive oil in glass bottle. Came out of the shop and I saw a footpath leading to higher ground which the local guide said people actually hike up to the upper part of the mountain. We wandered around, snapping photos here and there.

Soon it was about time to go so Kim and I took a slow walk back down to the car park and along the way; we stop by another shop where I bought a small rosary. We gathered back at the coach and returned to our hotel. Dinner was not provided and it was only 6+pm when we reached the hotel. According to Nancee, most eating places would only be opened about 7+pm or 8pm onwards. Our coach drive, Pehpeh, was very nice. He showed us the direction where we could find some food places still open. So Kim and I headed out to hunt for dinner without going back to our hotel room. Managed to find two or three shops and we finally settled on one of them. As the menu was in Spanish and neither of us knew how to read, we had to resort to guessing, especially when the staff could not converse in English.

So in the end, we chose the safest food and that was pizza. I saw people eating churros dipped in thick chocolate and I ordered that thinking that the chocolate came with the churros by default. We had to wait half an hour for our order to be ready so we sat in the shop and fiddled with our mobile phone. Finally, food was ready and during payment, Kim added a doughnut and I realized that the staff didn’t give me the thick chocolate. So I assumed that take-away churros don’t come with thick chocolate. We brought our food back to our hotel room and we ate. While eating, a thought struck and that was perhaps, I should have specified that I want the churros with thick chocolate and not just churros alone. Fortunately, the churros tasted good on its own, a pity I was too full to be able to finish all of them.

Thoughts: One thing I realized in Barcelona, similar to the few other European countries that I have visited, there are proper cycling tracks for cyclists. Also there is this bicycle rental services such that anyone who resides in Barcelona with a valid bank account can get a monthly card to use the bicycle rental service. The person can just obtain a bicycle at one of the many designated kiosks which is essentially a row of rental bicycles and then return it at a nearby kiosk that is close to his/her destination. How cool is that!

As for the city tourI find the design of La Sagrada Familia very interesting and it would have been good if we were given more time to admire the structures and take good photos of it.

Montserrat… Might have been really good place to explore; unfortunately we didn’t have the time. I could have queue to see the Black Madonna, wandered around the Basilica to take nice photos, sat inside to enjoy the singing and dancing, walked around the surrounding and maybe even hike a little just to get a good view of the rest of the lower ground.