In two days, we covered 20 temples in Angkor Archeological Park. I’m just going to let the photos do the talking:
Alas, our last stop on our whirlwind Spanish adventure. I’m not going to lie, we came to Madrid for the art, food and shopping!
The Prado Museum was a huge must on our list. But, instead of roaming around on our own, we hired a private guide (our tour group consisted of just four people). Hubs and I wanted to see all the important masterpieces of Velázquez and Goya, but not spend a huge chunk of time just running around or relying on time consuming audio guides. Instead, our guide focused on the history of 25 famous pieces in 1.5 hours. It was a perfect way to enjoy the highlights of the Prado and our guide was so passionate and knowledgable on everything about the artists and paintings we saw. His passion and enthusiasm definitely helped us enjoy and understand the pieces even more. After the art portion of the tour, we continued on to the second part: the food. Our guide brought us over to the oldest (consistently running) restaurant in the world for lunch: Sobrino de Botín. We had the privilege of entering the restaurant before it opened to get an all access tour of the place. All of us had a delicious meal filled with laughter and very full bellies!
(**no pictures or video were permitted inside the Prado, so it didn’t even occur to me to take a picture of the outside.**)
If you’ve followed me on my blog or on Instagram, you know that I post a fair amount of food pictures. So it may come as a surprise that I’ve only mentioned one of our meals in my previous posts in Granada. There’s definitely a good food scene in Madrid. We went to a lot of markets and even tried Venezuelan food for the very first time! Even after 17 days in Spain, we still can’t get used to the fact that dinner time starts at 9pm! But, we did get the hang of having tapas sized portions every few hours to keep our energy up for all the walking (ahem, shopping) we did.
After all the shopping and the Prado there wasn’t much time for too many other things. We explored Retiro Park and several neighborhoods. My favorites were La Latina and Cheuco/Malasaña areas. I’m a sucker for boutique-y, locally made, handmade, one of a kind type, independently-owned shops and there were plenty of them dotted all around the city! You could say that I helped the Spanish economy a bit with all my “Made in Spain” purchases. We will definitely be back to Madrid for a long weekend soon for more exploring, eating, and shopping!
Córdoba, a thousand years ago was considered a “metropolis” of the Islamic world. It was on par with other Islamic cities, such as Baghdad in its time, with a population of around 500,000 – unheard of in those times. It was a great cultural, political, financial, and literary center. Under the Moorish rule, the three big monotheistic religions existed side-by-side: Christian, Islam, and Judaism. While Córdoba was under Moorish rule, Abd al-Rahman I, in 784, ordered the Mezquita to be built. It was the grand mosque of its day, but as centuries went on it grew more grand through additional additions/renovations until the final update could accommodate up to 40,000 people for prayers. In the 13th century, Spanish Christians in the north became more organized and overtook the Moorish city of Córdoba. They forced the Moorish people, along with their cultural impact, to evacuate the city (many went further south to Granada as it would remain under Moorish rules for a few more centuries). The Spanish Christians immediately decided the grand mosque should not be destroyed, but converted to a Catholic Cathedral.
We’re incredibly lucky the Spanish King, Ferdinand III, decided to convert part of the mosque into a Catholic Cathedral instead of razing it to the ground. It’s truly a feat of engineering, an architectural marvel, a masterpiece, a site that takes a minimum of a few hours to digest the wonder of it. Upon entering the Mezquita you’re immediately floored by the 856+ columns supporting double-arches, in perfect horizontal and diagonal symmetric rows, which support the structure and roof. The building is a large rectangle and in the center is where the Spanish Catholics decided to remove some columns and insert a more classic style cathedral featuring high arches, skylights, a choir area, an organ, and a pulpit. You would never even realize the catholic cathedral was there if you stayed along the perimeter of the inside of the Mezquita. The inside features Islamic artifacts and designs around the edges of the rectangular structure, including a still intact Mihrab as it was nearly 900 years ago. The two religious building styles juxtaposed against each other is truly a wonder and a sight to behold. Hubs and I spent two hours in the Mezquita trying as best we could to take it all in. We took hundreds of photos, but you can’t sum up this place in a series of photos, or even a video. You have to “feel” it to understand the brevity of its splendor. I have to say it’s one of the most spiritual places Hubs and I have ever visited. We were even lucky enough to have witnessed a wedding during our time inside.
If you do make your way to Spain to visit, go for the general admission ticket from one of the automated machines (avoid the evening sound and light private tour – no photos permitted). And, in order to get away from the crowds and tours, go around lunch (Spanish time) or after.
After the visit to the Mezquita, we roamed over to the roman bridge to take some of the pictures of the city you see in guide books. Córdoba is a quiet town and after seeing the Mezquita all other discoveries were just the icing on the cake.
A few years ago while perusing other traveler blog posts, I came across one about Ronda, Spain. Up to that point, I hadn’t even heard of this little town in the middle of nowhere. The blogger’s pictures of a town perched on a cliff overlooking a gorgeous gorge was all it took for me to put it on the list! We spent one night in this little town just long enough to be able to meander down to see the gorge from below and take in the beauty of one of the largest ‘White Hill’ towns in Spain; it’s all the time you really need there. A lot of folks actually try to do this as a day trip from Seville or Granada (albeit, a bit rushed). I feel like the more Hubs and I travel, the more we want to take our time in each place and be part of the scenery, instead of only seeing it from behind our cameras. We’ve been privileged to have enough time to “smell the roses”, but it’s definitely not taken for granted.
In addition to the gorge, we also learned that Ronda is the birthplace of modern Spanish bullfighting. This town is home to the oldest bullring in Spain. We made it just an hour before it closed, so we practically had the whole place to ourselves to explore. It’s quite amazing to see where the bulls are held and if you looked closely at the inside of the doors, you can see all sorts of horn gouges on the inside of the stall doors.
Side story at the Ronda bullring: Hubs was off on his own taking a few photos at the horse stables, but needed to put his phone through the window bars to take some photos. He got a couple, and then ‘oooops!’, he dropped his phone from about 10 feet, down into the horse stable courtyard. The courtyard was inaccessible by visitors and he had to go ask for help with his broken Spanish, and even had to mime riding a horse to tell them where it was :’-) He would have used Google translate, but ‘oooops!’ again, he didn’t have his phone. The staff giggled a bit at his misfortune, but were very nice and helpful to retrieve it. While we were waiting, one of the horses witnessed what was going on and stuck his tongue out at Hubs, almost laughing at him too. In the end, Hubs was lucky the phone was in a case and uninjured from fall.
Granada means pomegranate in Spanish, sits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and is home to the famous Alhambra. Interesting fact: Any Spanish word beginning with “Al-” was derived from Arabic, there are at least 4000+ Spanish words contributed from Arabic. This was our second stop and one of my absolute favorites of our trip. This town had character and grit. You could tell the Islamic influence was much greater in this city than Sevilla, and it’s something that’s celebrated and adds to the mix of cultures there. In addition, the history and architecture were just as fascinating.
The Alhambra is the last and greatest Moorish palace. It’s also the main attraction visitors from all over the world come to see. Many bloggers and sites strongly advise you to buy your Alhambra tickets before your plane ticket, so that you have a reservation to plan your trip around the palace. This place is very popular and permits a limited number of guests per day to preserve the site (~6600). The ticketing system had changed since I purchased our tickets months ago, therefore, you may have to dig a littler deeper into what pre-buying entails. Regardless, I can’t stress this enough- if you are traveling a long way and this is one of your absolute “must-sees”, you better make sure you have tickets, because you might be sorely disappointed if you can’t get in. If you’ve read my Sevilla post, I also stressed online reservations for other “must-see” sights in that city too – a recurring theme.
Now, let’s talk about the seeing Alhambra. The palace sits on a hill, which overlooks Granada, as a display of power and oversight when the Sultans ruled. The grounds include not only the palace, but a fort, Charles V’s palace (built later), and gardens. Picture it, the year was 1333 (Alhambra completed), mainland Europe was still steeped in the Dark Ages where poverty, ignorance, superstition, and illiteracy reigned supreme. The Moors (Arabs) in southern Spain, comparatively, brought education, mathematics, philosophy, etc…from Northern Africa. This part of Europe flourished during this time under Moorish rule. One of the major themes of the Alhambra palace was the use of water features. For the Moors, water was the greatest symbol of life. In the palace there were pools, fountains, and other water features sourced from the mountain springs. The Moors brought the technological know how of running water. Everywhere in the palace there was water features and gurgling sounds. Along with the water features, every inch of the interior walls were carved with intricate geometric designs along with Arabic script. Where there weren’t carvings, tiles with symmetric geometric designs adorned the walls. In every room you entered I would look down and see water, look to the walls for carvings, and then the ceilings had hand sculpted stalactites hanging from the ceilings. The ceilings were beautiful in every room. It’s hard to describe the inside completely, because if I did this entry would be about five to ten pages long. Suffice it to say, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen like this, and it really is something you have to see once in your life.
The Albaicín (or Albayzín) is Spain’s best old Moorish quarter and it’s also a definite must to just wander and get lost through all the narrow and maze-like streets. There’s also the San Nicolas viewpoint which has that iconic breathtaking view of the Alhambra. It’s so picturesque that Hubs and I went twice during our visit. We also found a family owned authentic Moroccan restaurant and it turned out to be one the best meals we had during our entire Spain trip.
As per Rick Steve’s recommendation, Hubs and I signed up for an olive oil tasting tour. We had a small group of 8 people. The tour started off at the oldest preserved olive oil mill in Spain, that’s now turned into a museum. We then walked around some olive tree groves and came across olive trees that were 500+ years old (one pictured below) – they can produce olives for well over 1000+ years. I didn’t know olive trees could live that long! There were several nearby in the same age range. Another fun fact is that Spain is the largest producer of olive oil. So, that Italian olive oil that is on your kitchen shelf- it may contain Spanish oil and then topped off with some Italian oil in order to market it as Italian olive oil. Italy’s olive oil trees were affected by disease several years ago and they’re still not able to keep up with demand. After the tour info and sights, we got to the fun part, the tasting! They had us set up with what official olive oil tasters would use – dark blue glasses with a glass lid on top. Tasting is similar to how you would with wine. Take a sip, let it sit in your mouth, swish it around, and then swallow. The more “peppery” it feels in your throat equals freshness of the oil. I learned a few tricks of how the Spanish use the olive oils and can’t wait to incorporate them into our daily life. I, of course, couldn’t walk away without purchasing several bottles of the ones we liked. I only wish we had more space in our luggage to bring back more.
When in Italy, you must eat! And that we did. We were gluttons and could not turn down all that homemade pasta, gelato, pastries, fresh lake fish and other seafood we gorged on. We’re paying dearly for it now that we’re back.
Real Italian food is simple and usually has no more than five ingredients in their dishes. Anything more than that makes it questionable if it’s truly authentic. Things like Fettuccini Alfredo and “Italian” dressing are examples of American inventions. I honestly didn’t know any differently until I visited Europe for the first time in 2008. My taste palette has certainly changed since then!
The food at our B&B was fantastic; the breakfasts were so so good. One evening they offered a home-cooked four course meal and it turned out to be the best meal during this trip to Italy. We were spoiled. Our typical breakfast spread had omelettes, fresh vegetables and fruits from their garden, homemade olive oil harvested from their olive groves, homemade pastries and jams, cheeses, Italian cured meats, and yogurt made fresh every morning. It was a feast that filled our happy tummies until it was time to eat again.
Now, let me get to our best and favorite meal of our stay. The innkeepers offered a four course meal for all of their guests for a nominal fee, which is normal for an agriturismo in Italy. The lake fish caught fresh that morning to the homemade lasagna made with fresh noodles and herbs from the garden were so incredibly delicious. And even after our return, we’re still dreaming about it. Do yourself a favor and eat your way through Italy- you won’t regret it!
A few weeks after Hershey crossed the rainbow bridge, I told Hubs that there was no way in hell I wanted to be anywhere near Vienna when the one year anniversary mark hit. We looked around for a new place to visit and decided on Hong Kong. It was far away and didn’t resemble anything “European”. We left on Christmas day and flew with Turkish Airlines. This was before Austrian Airlines announced their new nonstop route from Vienna. I really didn’t care for Turkish Airlines and probably won’t fly them again.
Once in Hong Kong, it was like the breath of fresh air we desperately needed. We mainly went there to eat, take in the sights and heal. Hong Kong is very hilly and has lots of stairs. Thank goodness for the mid-level escalators in the center of the city.
The Hong Kong tram system is the only one left in the world that operates double decker trams exclusively. It was so charming and cool. We rode them every chance we got! Hubs and I also stood in line for Victoria Peak not knowing we already had the right tickets to jump to the front of the line. So when a family of four cut in front of us-I used some, ummm, choice words, loudly. Needless to say, they thought I was the crazy one. It was well worth it once we got to the top. The iconic views of the Hong Kong skyline were amazing. Although extremely touristy, it’s a must-do. If you decide to go to Victoria Peak, here’s a tip – use the bus instead of the tram to go up AND down the mountain. Plus, the wait is much shorter both ways with the bus – and cheaper!
We also took advantage of going to a modern and “real” movie theater. The American cinema company AMC exists there and paying the extra costs to be in the VIP room was well worth it. Like in most Asian cities, they jack up the air conditioning so high that you’re a popsicle by the time you leave. There were reclining leather seats with call buttons for an attendant to fetch you anything you wanted during the movie.
I didn’t find out until a day or two before the trip that there was a coffee shop named Hazel & Hershey in Hong Kong. It was fate… I couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate Hershey’s life than this for the one year mark. They had really good matcha lattes and coffee; we went back a few days later for a second helping.
During our trip we also celebrated Hubs’ birthday. I surprised him with a buffet brunch at the Ritz Carlton on the 102th floor near the harbor on the Kowloon side. We had a special window table and the views were unsurpassed. The food was delicious, too. It was our last day in Hong Kong.
In many ways, this trip was healing for us. It doesn’t erase Hershey or the days leading up to his death, but it took away a lot of the pain associated with the time of year it happens to fall near. I know that Christmas and New Years will forever be bittersweet in our hearts.
If there was one word to describe an Indian wedding, it would be colorful. For the two day celebration, I saw so many beautiful sarees, choli, dresses, and kurta. It was a feast for the eyes.
A little snip-it video that I’ve captured of the tradition dancing. Adjust volume lower before playing!
The second day began with the groom’s procession, also known as the baraat. This is when the groom rides on an elaborate horse drawn carriage to where the wedding will take place. In our case, it took an hour and half to go 1 kilometer. This is because there is a lot of dancing and throwing of the money during this time, sort of like a parade. The throwing money is to entice the marching band to play louder.
The marching band playing at the start of the groom’s procession
Then the ceremony starts. In my opinion, it’s always an honor to witness two people join together and commit to one another, no matter what culture. One of the most beautiful weddings I’ve ever been to.
|Flowers to be thrown at the couple during saptapadi, or seven steps, as they vow to support each other and live happily together|
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