Iberian Peninsular | Vispi Mistry

VISPI MISTRY is a globe trotter and one of the esteemed clients of COMPACT TRAVELS having travelled to Sri Lanka, Prague, Budapest and recently in May to the Iberian Peninsular and Morocco. His fancy for new destinations is a challenge to our team to go to various extents to do intense research and his next jaunt is going to be the Whisky Trail in Scotland this September.

Although, COMPACT TRAVELS was not offering packages to Scotland, clients like Vispi have become an inspiration- so much that now COMPACT TRAVELS boasts of being expert on advising people to visit Scotland as the Director of Compact Travels has recently completed a Destination Scots Specialist Program thus bringing the total number of specialization to double digit if you include Austria, Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Jordan, Poland, New Zealand and South Africa – a rare feat by any tour company in India. Besides, the above, COMPACT TRAVELS also has exciting package options to Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Russia, Finland, Scandinavia and many more emerging destinations

VIVA ESPAÑA was the call I gave to the charming Puja, the bright executive from COMPACT TRAVELS who has planned and designed many of my foreign jaunts in the last 2 years. Of course, if one goes to Spain then neighbouring Portugal (they share 1300 kms of unguarded border, sigh! wish we could have the same arrangement with Pakistan) and Morocco across the straits of Gibraltar cannot be ignored. So after many debates and innumerable emails our packed itinerary of 20 days was finalized and I am going to take you over an armchair panoramic trip of my 20 days. We flew Air-France to Madrid landing there around 3:00 p.m. – a quick fresh up and off to explore the city. A short ride in the METRO and we landed up in “Gran Via: the main street of Madrid, it’s a real hotspot and a very happening street with shops, hotels, theatres and cinema, “paella” and the famous wine based drink the “sangria”. The Paella is a tomato gravy based dish, a risotto which is served with boiled rice, seafood and vegetable. You can get Meat Paella too. But seafood is more authentic.
Madrid – the capital of Spain since 1561 is as beautiful as any European city. The same evening we were off on our first Panoramic Coach Tour followed by the local “Flamenco” dance performance and dinner. Flamenco is the national dance of Spain and the dancers have those clappers in their hands with which they click away to the beat of the music. These performances can be enjoyed with a full dinner or “TAPAS”, for the uniniated, Tapas means snacks and is equally expensive but very tasty if you like cheese, fish and dry meat.

The next morning we left for our 3-day seat-in-coach package tour of Portugal. The drive to Lisbon from Madrid (approx 650 kms) took 8 hours with a lunch halt at a small town called Trujillo with an impressive square called Mayors’ Square. All towns in Spain and Portugal have these squares, which are the beehive of commercial and tourist activities. They all are dotted with shops and usually have fountains and/ or statues. The whole atmosphere with the cobbled by lanes and old well preserved houses transports you four hundred years back in time and this is one thing we sorely miss in India.
LISBON is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and a first class trans-oceanic port. It stretches along the northern length of the banks of the River Tejo estuary, occupying seven hills amongst which Monsanto stands out, with its height of 226 metres.
It was a former Phoenician colony and Roman Capital of Lusitania, being called Felicitas. Julia in honour of Julius Caesar. The city was devastated by the barbarian invasions and in the 5th Century was converted into a stronghold for the Visigoths. The Arabs conquered it in 714 and in the XII century it was taken by Christian King Alfonso.

The next morning we were on a tour of the city which included the tower of Belem, the Hieronomyte Monastery and the ‘Padrao dos Descrobimentos’ which is a modern structure built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Portugal explorers discovery of the new world. Lisbon is on the mouth of the river Tejo very close to where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. On our entry to Lisbon we traversed the longest bridge in Europe – the Vasco da Gama Bridge with a length of 17 kms built across the river. The Tower of Belem, built between 1515 and 1521 on the bank of the river Tejo, is a landmark of the city. It was built by the then King Manuel to control the entrance and exit of the city of Lisbon through the water route.

On the opposite bank of the river is the Monument of Christ The King. It is a replica of the famous one in Rio De Janeiro and is an impressive 28 meters tall. The view of the Monument at night is simply breathtaking.
In the afternoon we took an optional tour to 3 lovely nearby towns of Sintra, Cascais and Estoril. Sintra is located on the northern slope of the Serra de Sintra (mountain), between cliffs, woods and natural springs – this town is a haven of peace and greenness. It became one of the favourite place of retreat for the Portuguese Monarchs and welcomed the most outstanding Portuguese people from the world of Arts, such as Luis de Camões, Gil Vicente or João de Barros. In fact, the feeling that one gets on walking around the streets in the old town is that it is a town of artists, because of the amount of handicraft and antique shops that are found with each step.

The heart of the Vila Velha (old town) of Sintra, declared Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 1995, is dominated by the Paco Real (Royal Palace), with its two high and strange cone shaped chimneys. Its construction was carried out in two stages: the first in the reign of João I, at the beginning of the XV century, when they built the bulk of the building, including the main block and the large kitchen under the chimneys which kept the utensils used for preparing the Royal banquets in olden times; the second, at the beginning of the XVI century, during the reign of Manuel I, who increased it by adding various parts and enriching the interior of the palace. On the inside, the most significant collection of Islamic mosaics in the world has been preserved, which in the main adorn – the Sala dos Árabes, the Chapel and the Sala Das Sereias (mermaids). But in the building, the Sala dos Brasões (arms) stands out more than anything else. The vaulted ceiling is decorated with hunting dogs, which support the coat of arms; the Sala dos Cisnes (swans), with its wonderful craftsmanship, the Sala Das Pegas (parrots), whose ceiling is painted with these birds and who carry on their pink beaks the word “por bem” (for good). It is said that João I uttered them when he was surprised by the queen as he was kissing a lady in waiting and so, to put an end to the pieces of gossip, ordered the painting of the vaulted ceiling with as many parrots as there were ladies in waiting in the court.
On the Estoril Coast, a little more than a dozen kilometers from Lisbon, one of the most outstanding Portuguese tourist areas can be found. Known as ‘the area of the two springs’ due to its microclimate, warm in summer and pleasantly sunny the rest of the year, the coast of Estoril starts at Carcavelos and goes to Guinos, along a line of sea blue, which continues to gently rub the fine white sand of the beaches. There are, however, two towns that shine in this place on the Atlantic coast: Estoril and Cascais. Estoril was formerly a fishing village, barely known for the curative virtues of its thermal waters, but it has become a cosmopolitan place frequented by the aristocracy, full of big houses, modern apartments and luxury hotels. It’s elegant international clientele has the opportunity to practice sports such as golf, tennis and horse riding, or go to the Autodrome where the great Formula 1 Grand Prix is held. It also has a school for drivers, which attracts people from home and abroad. At night the Casino, which is high up in the central part surrounded by gardens, offers in its rooms all types of European and American gambling.
Enroute we also passed the Cabo da Roca lighthouse this is the western most point of Europe and a must visit for those interested in saying “I have been there”. Cascais was an outstanding port which the prehistoric people – the Romans, Visigoths and Arabs enjoyed, as it has a very protected bay. Cascais achieved its independence at the same time as Lisbon and was granted the title of “Villa” in the middle of the XIV century. It’s beginning as a centre for tourism and holidays started in the decade of 1870, when King Luis I converted the XVII century fortress, which was built on a rocky promontory, into a summer palace. One wing of this building is still used as the summer residence of the President of Portugal today.
On our last day in Lisbon, we visited Fatima – the world famous holy shrine of the Catholic faith where the lady appeared to 3 little children. Back in Madrid the next day, we visited the famous Plaza Mayor – this breathtaking square closed with elegant buildings built at the turn of the XVII century, a fully paved 16000 sq.mtrs area which at the time was big enough to hold 1/3rd of the population of Madrid. In the centre of the square is the impressive statue of Philip III built in 1613.
Three days are not enough to see this wonderful city but one cannot come back without seeing the PRADO museum – a real treasure chest of art. It has been the greatest collection of Spanish paintings in the world ranging from the XII to the XIX century. Over 7000 paintings in the possession of the museum can only be exhibited in rotation as there is enough space to exhibit only 1300 paintings at a time. The originals of all Spanish masters – Goya, Greco, Velazquez as well as other great European painters like Rubens, Rembrandt Titian and a host of other masters can be found there.

Another must see of course is the magnificent Real Palace (Real=Royal in Spanish), the elegance and splendour of the rooms will fulfill all expectations. No visit to Spain can be complete without seeing a Bullfight and much over the protest of the ladies of my group (Incidentally, I was the only guy) we went to the fight in the biggest bullring in Spain, which is in Madrid. The stadium with a capacity of 23000 seats was overflowing with locals going hoarse and applauding the bullfighters skill and dexterity as they speared one bull after another – totally six bulls went down in the entire evening. Of course to us Indians it is a stomach churning and bloody gory sight. But an experience not to be missed. We also made a full day trip to Toledo, 70 kilometres from Madrid. Toledo Still protected behind its ancient walls with nine gates, reached by a fine Roman bridge, the Puente de Alcantara, watched over by the Castillo de San Servando, Toledo has always played a foremost role throughout the different stages of history in the Iberian Peninsula, having been inhabited by the Romans who built a fortress on the hill dominating the River Tagus by Visigoths, Moors (who occupied the city in 711), Christians (after Alphonse VI took it over in 1085) and Jews. It was the Jews, in fact, who contributed greatly to the economical and artistic splendour of Toledo. During all these years they were able to live freely in the flourishing city: evidence of this is seen in the eight beautiful synagogues that adorned the city with their elegant architecture, two of which still stand out: the ancient Sinagoga de Santa Maria and the famous Sinagoga del Transito.
Capital of the kingdom for a long time, frequently but unsuccessfully besieged by the Arabs, Toledo lived for centuries in the productive atmosphere of wide-spread and tolerant cosmopolitanism, at least until the end of the XV century, when the Jews were expelled following a period of veiled crisis resulting in considerable bloodshed. However the most stunning building in Toledo is its Cathedral. Modestly speaking I have personally seen many cathedrals in various cities in Europe including St.Peters in the Vatican but this magnificent edifice is one of the finest that I have ever seen. The building of which commenced 800 years ago and has architecture of various styles over the centuries, the interiors of which is incredibly rich and sumptuous with the magnificent choir-stalls in carved mahogany wood, the chapter room with 16th century frescos and the vestry frescoed by Luca Giordano has masterpieces by Greco, Titian and Goya is simply awesome and make one gaze in open mouthed wonder – a must see on any Spanish itinerary.
Toledo also is very famous for its highly skilled craftsmen who make exquisite swords and daggers. These are forged and engraved exclusively by hand following techniques and procedures handed down from generations. Also equally famous is the art of embellishing steel plates with fine 24 carat gold to create stunningly beautiful jewellery and other artefacts, called Damascene art. Lastly, the pastries and cakes – the typical sweet of Toledo is Marzipans – a superb delicacy made of sugar and almonds. The word Marzipan comes from the Arabic work ‘Mahasapan’ which the Arabs called the boxes used to store sweetmeats and spices. After Madrid and Toledo, we flew to the Catalan north of Spain – Barcelona where the 1992 Olympic Games were held. This vivacious city of Catalunya, boasts of one of the most exotic structures: The Sagrada Familia, which means the Holy Family. This imposing edifice built towards the end of the 19th century by Antoni Gaudi – one of the greatest architects of our time.
This is another must see on your Spanish visit. To get a breathtaking panoramic view of Barcelona take the cable car from Christopher Columbus square – the most touristy spot, to Mount Juic where the Olympic stadium is also located. Other magnificent not to be missed structures are The Triumphal Arch and the monumental fountain both built in 1888 for the universal exhibition. Another beautiful spot is the old fishermen’s village now called the Barceloneta – a pleasant lively district where cafés, restaurants and fishing vessels abound. After a couple of days in Barcelona we flew down south to Costa Del Sol. This beautiful seaside region is world famous for its beaches. The first experience of this laid back seaside region hit us when we had to wait for 45 minutes at the Malaga airport for our pickup. But after reaching our hotel ‘Marina Sur’ and seeing the breathtaking view from our 9th floor room all was forgiven. We were staying in the locality called ‘Torremolino’ and this wonderful place was in two words – a Shoppers Paradise selling fabulous leather goods and clothes at very reasonable rates. Lucky me!!
Our next three days were very hectic with full day trips to Granada, Seville and yes the Rock of Gibraltar. Granada is an unparalleled city, protected in the North by the majestic Sierra Nevada and its high peaks, snow capped until Spring, and facing south towards the warmest sea of all Spain, the delightful Costa del Sol. Furthermore, Granada has an abundance of water, which rushes down the mountain sides before running into the thousand of streams that make their way around palaces and courtyards, gardens and squares. This element was particularly appreciated by the Arabian dynasties that were the first to give the city its sparkling splendour. Granada is Alhambra and Alhambra is Granada. Rising above the red hills, the royal palace of Alhambra stands proud and eternal – one important architectural structures of the middle ages and the finest example of Islamic art left in the western world.
The gardens of the palace are well maintained with abundant flowers and fruit trees. I learnt an interesting piece of information here: did you know that there are two types of oranges, one variety to eat and the other to make Orange Marmalade! Granada also has a beautiful Cathedral, which unfortunately was closed for restoration, and we couldn’t see it. The other interesting facets of Granada are the Spanish Gypsies who even today live in the caves of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The caves are called ‘Cuevas’. Unfortunately our tour didn’t include a visit to their area.
After Granada, the next day was Seville. According to tradition, Seville was founded by Hercules who appears to have played a very active role in the many ancient legends concerning the origins of Andalusia. Prose-like verses narrate of a prosperous Phoenician settlement occupied first by the Greeks and then by the Carthaginians, followed by the Romans. In effect, Seville simply followed the same fate as most of the large cities in this region: after being conquered by the Visigoths who made it the capital of their kingdom, it was conquered by the Arabs in 712 and flourished and grew under their domination until it could rival the nearby Cordoba in size and splendour. During the XIII century, King Ferdinand III triumphantly took over, and was ultimately buried here, leaving his emblems forever in the city. In the XV century, the Catholic Monarchs established their court here in the old Moorish buildings. However, it was the Discovery of America and the consequent, expanding whirlwind of trade and commerce that brought Seville to the height of glory, and to a considerable increase in population. The dreadful plague epidemic in 1649, however, was the start of a slow but progressive decline from which the city has never fully recovered, even though it still preserves traces of its past glory and maintains its unquestionably lively culture, besides continuing in its role as administrative capital of the region, headquarters of the autonomous government and focal point of its social and political unrest.
Our last day in Cost del Sol was the trip to The Rock of Gibraltar. This famous piece is in Gibraltar, which is the last bastion of Britains colonial past held on by them and inspite of the ridiculous visa charge of UK (Rs.6500/- for a six month visa), how could I miss when I have always prophetically said “The Rock of Gibraltar is an armchair compared to my wife’s steely resolve”. This very touristy little town of Gibraltar is a walkover from the Spanish coastal town of Algericas about 150 kilometres from Malaga. The Rock, which in itself is a huge, hill approximately 4000′ high towers over and dominates the entire town.
A drive onto the rock gives on a clear vision of the Coast of Africa – a mere 15 miles away. Hidden in the rock are the famous Stalaguire and Stalagmite caves called the St. Michael’s caves, which are a truly awe-inspiring site. The town of Gibraltar is a duty free shoppers paradise with half the shops owned by Sindhis and Punjabis. The next day, we took the ferry to cross over to the African continent which was a mere 45 metres away landing at Tangiers – the northern most town of Morocco.After spending a fortnight in Exotic Spain and Portugal, going to Morocco is similar to drinking Vinicola no: 7 (no disrespect meant to the Goan Port), after downing a 15 year old bottle of Porto from Portugal. They are two different continents, countries and culture, can you believe it that only 15 miles of water separates them??

We took a 4 nights package, which took us to Tangiers, Rabat, Casablanca Marrakesh and Fez. After a panoramic tour of Tangiers where we saw the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, a lovely photo spot, proceeded to Rabat, which is the current capital of Morocco. The two impressive structures in the town are the Royal Palace and the Mausoleum of the current King’s Father Mohammed V. It is a masterpiece of Hispano Moresque architecture and was built in 1971. The palace too is an impressive structure from outside. All the towns in Morocco have within them a fortified walled city called the Medina, which means old town/city in Arabic.These Medinas are totally self-sufficient townships by themselves inhibited by citizen numbering anywhere between 100000 to 300000. The one in Rabat had 150000 inhabitants. A quick walk through them showed us the local way of life.
After a long day we reached Casablanca. This city has been made famous by the Hollywood movie of 1939 starring Humphrey Bogart and goes by the name of the city. Situated halfway between Fez and Marrakesh, Casablanca is the largest city in the kingdom of Morocco. The other important cities are far behind both as regards population and economic importance. Over ten percent of the population of the country lives in this city, which contains most of the country’s industrial, financial and economic activities.

In the course of the last decades, Casablanca has developed considerably. While the population numbered 250000 at the beginning of the century, it currently counts over three million souls. The demographic growth has been on the increase ever since it was founded.
Casablanca has impressive modern buildings and parks with the Part of the Arab League – a really magnificent one created 100 years ago. The King Hassan II mosque also is an impressive structure. From Casablanca we proceeded to Marrakesh where we were put up in a 5 Star Hotel. Marrakesh is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco. Capital of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties, it was subsequently abandoned by the Merinids. The Saadian brought it back into vogue, but the Alaouites, while still concerned with its development and progress, preferred Fez, Meknès or Rabat as the capital of the kingdom.

The city is important because of its geographical position where the north and south of the country converge, not far from the Sahara and the Atlantic branch out towards Agadir, Casablanca, Fez or Meknès. Moreover, Marrakesh faces onto the mountain slope, opening itself towards the Sahara through the Tizi N’Test Pass and the Tizi N’Tichka. The city has an impressive gate called the Bab Agnaou gate built in 1150. Other impressive structures are the tombs of the Saadian Sultans built in the 16th Century. In the night we attended a local folk show called the ‘Fantasia’. As with all Arabs, the Moroccans too are skilled horsemen and showed us their exemplary horsemanship which was truly spectacular.
The next day we proceeded to Fez, our last stop in Morocco. Fez is situated 60 Kilometers from Meknès. Fez has various claims to nobility as one of the most prestigious cities in the Muslim world, for centuries a centre for culture and religion, the melting pot of the Maghreb civilization. Moreover, Fez is the oldest of the imperial cities and the capital of the first Arab dynasty of Morocco.

In an attempt to fully comprehend Fez is to visit its Medina. The Fez Medina is the oldest and the biggest in Morocco housing more than 350000 inhabitants. It has over 10000 streets and by lanes and one would surely get lost if there were no local guide. In the night we went to see a belly dance show, where they had grandmothers for belly dancers. Oh!! Please don’t even dream about seeing belly dancing in Fez.
The last morning we were up at 6:00 a.m. to go back to Spain. Driving through winding mountainous terrain to the Spanish territory in Africa called Soeta from where we crossed to Algericas in Spain.

The next two days involved going from Malaga to Madrid to Paris and finally Mumbai where we landed after circling 1 hour in the air to get a landing slot. Did I hear someone in the plane mutter “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like…Mumbai”.

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