San Sebastian

San Sebastian

We waited almost too long to plan our trip to San Sebastian. Consequently, we paid a little too much for our train tickets and hotel. And we got only one positive response to our requests for private winery tours. But we got lucky – more in a moment.

The train ride from Madrid to San Sebastian is 7½ hours. That meant two days of travel for one full day in San Sebastian. But we were determined, and we’re past overnight trains. So we loaded up on e-books and snacks and settled in.

A snag when we deboarded in San Sebastian: we couldn’t exit the platform. The stiles were set up to take the small metro-sized tickets in order to exit, and we had regular RENFE tickets. The crowd grew. The worker overseeing the exit process just shrugged his shoulders. We waited. The crowd grew. People with bags clutching tickets and online printouts. Finally, they just released the stile and everyone flooded through and out. If it was meant to be a security feature, it failed miserably.

We had arranged with GoBasque for a private winery tour. It was the big expenditure of Roommate’s trip, and it was well worth it. When Nina and Ander picked us up, the other two tourists were sisters from Connecticut. Much to everyone’s delight, we were all of like mind about tastings and tourings.

Nina and Ander had done their homework, and Ander grew up in Basque country. The drive was punctuated by information about Basque history, culture, and language.

Our first stop was CVNE, a traditional winery in the Barrio de la Estacion in Haro, Rioja Alta. The first sight: workers sorting grapes just in from the harvest.

We learned new (to me) facts about Rioja wine and wine-making in general:

·       French oak is 800-1200 Euros per barrel

·       American oak is 400-600 Euros per barrel

·       The barrels have to be cleaned every 4 months, and they can only clean 50 a day.

·       During fermentation, the barrels lose about 7% of the wine.

·       After the wine has fermented, they blend the American and French barrels to get the desired taste.

·       Plastic corks are okay for young wines, but for not for others.

Fun facts about CVNE winery:

·       The cellar was designed by Eiffel. Yes, that Eiffel.

·       The winery had the first electricity in Spain – the third in all of Europe, behind only London and Paris.

·       A new cellar will double their production capacity, from 25,000 barrels to 50,000 barrels.

·       Their Monople was the first trademarked white wine in Spain.

Rules for producing Rioja wine are specific:

·       Excessive cleaning (see above – cleaning barrels every 4 months)

·       Barrels hold 220 liters

·       Time in barrel

·       Time in bottle

From there, we walked through the Barrio de la Estacion to Bodegas Muga. They had the most clever marketing thing I’ve seen yet in a winery: a coaster for each wine with a photo of the label and information about the wine in Spanish and in English. Each tasting was set on the appropriate coaster. Sure makes it easy to keep up with the wines you like!

Then back into the van to the modern winery: Bodegas Baigorri in Samaniego in the Altavista region. The winery is built into the hillside, with only the top floor visible upon arrival. This is floor 0, all glass with a welcome area and stunning views of the vineyards and countryside all around. The winery itself is in the 7 floors beneath the welcome area.

Here, too, it was sorting time from the harvest. Trailers of grapes were everywhere.

Fun facts about Baigorri:

·       They’re considered a medium producer, with 500,000 bottles per year.

·       All of their grapes are grown within 15 km of the winery

·       They have 125 hectares of vineyards, 25 owned and 100 managed by the winery.

·       The winery was established in 2002.

And more details about wine production:

·       The French came to Spain because of vine disease in their vineyards. The introduced techniques beyond foot stomping.

·       Tempranillo grapes are able to withstand temperature extremes.

·       Temperature has to reach 28 degrees for the sugar in grapes to be transformed into alcohol.

·       During the first fermentation, liquid and skins need to mixed for 18 days.

·       The second fermentation takes one month. The solid is separated from the liquid, and the malic acid needs to be transformed into lactic acid.

·       Young wines then go straight to bottles; the others then go into oak.

Their wines specifically:

·       In addition to French and American oak, they use 5% Russian oak. French oak is older than American oak and adds a strong and spicy element to the wine.

·       Rose is 50% tempranillo and 50% granache.

·       White wine is crianza and is fermented only in French barrels, which are replaced every year.

·       The Grand Reserve spends 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle before market.

·       The B70 comes from vines at least 70 years old. There is not as much yield, but the flavor is better. They only produce 1100 bottles of the B70 each year. This wine ages in small oak tanks, not stainless tanks.

Our tour finished with a tasting lunch, complete with fabulous views out the floor-to-ceiling windows.

But Nina and Ander weren’t finished with us yet. We took a detour to the tiny town of Laguardia, where we roamed for an hour or so before returning to our hotels in San Sebastian. The town is definitely worth another trip.

The two evenings we spent in San Sebastian, we just roamed and enjoyed looking at the old and new art and watching the locals gather at the many tapas bars.

San Sebastian – and the wine area around it – definitely deserve more time!


another visit to Cordoba

another visit to Cordoba

We trained from Granada to Cordoba – well, sort of. The first leg of the journey was via bus, since the tracks were under construction. The Granada train station is also under renovation, so we had to tow our luggage a couple of blocks away to have breakfast while we waited for our not-train bus to arrive and begin loading.

Upon arriving in Cordoba, we took a taxi to our hotel: the NH Amistad. We love Cordoba, and we love this hotel. It’s just inside the wall in old town, with an entrance outside the wall and parking in a lot underneath the wall. I expected our taxi to drop us off outside the wall, but he turned the corner into old town and made his way through the narrow streets to drop us off in front of the hotel.

There’s no way to make sense of the old town and Jewish quarter, so it’s best to just roam and let yourself get lost. You’ll find a familiar landmark eventually. And in the meantime you’ll discover lovely gardens and shops and cafes.

We headed to the Mezquita for the afternoon. Just inside the entry, an area was roped off for excavation. We couldn’t tell what was going on exactly, but I assume the work is ongoing at such an important site.


This second trip to the Mezquita, I found it easier to understand the expansions that occurred over the years. It stirs my soul to know that so many people of different faiths have managed to worship there over the centuries.


another visit to Granada

another visit to Granada

My husband loves me. We were looking at a 5-hour bus ride from Alicante to Granada. And as much as we love us some Spanish trains, we’re not big fans of the buses: they’re just not as comfortable. So he rented a car, drove us to Granada, (literally) dropped us off at the hotel, then drove back to Alicante.

We stayed at the NH Collection Victoria, where we had stayed before. It’s in a great location, the rooms are very comfortable, and the staff is great.

Monday night, we roamed…… We made our way to a side street, where we discovered Bodegas Castaneda. What a find! We ordered the grilled cheese and the smoked fish and were about to order more when the waiter stopped us: “Basta. Is enough for two.” And it was! We managed to finish the cheese, but not the fish.


Tuesday we tackled la Alhambra. It was no less spectacular the second time. Todd and I went in February, when it was in its winter state. This time: the COLOR! Much easier to enjoy the second time when I didn’t feel compelled to take hundreds of pictures. I decided to focus on the colors outside in the gardens and the ceilings inside the Nasrid Palace. I think the thematic focus worked out well.

The color:

Near the end of our tour of the Generalife, we encountered a dig team: a group of students from American and British universities were working with local students to uncover a glass works site. This was their first day, and they were excited, even though all they were doing was lugging water to make mud to clear off the “ugly” detritus from the 1960s that covered the original site. They agreed that their excitement would probably wane by the end of the week.


After spending a couple of hours in the Generalife, we stopped at the Parador for a bite of lunch. Another tasty cheese plate, a couple of revitalizing Cokes, and a spectacular view of the Generalife—but the service, as we noted on our last visit, was slow.

On to the Nasrid Palace.

The ceilings:

The corners:

The doors:

And, of course, the tile:

Tactical error on my part: we didn’t have any water with us while touring the Nasrid Palace. We were pretty miserable by the time we were done. We staggered into the Hotel America and had water in the sitting room (the patio restaurant was full). As an added bonus, we had entertainment: an 80-something-year-old woman who was taking care of a 90-something-year-old man. He got up shortly after we sat down, and she delightedly explained to us that he was going to the bathroom-alone. Her accent was British, but they lived in Spain and had come to the Alhambra for an overnight visit. She announced that she conversed with strangers and proceeded to do just that. At one point, she mused that she wished there was someone who could plait her (long, gray) hair. She asked us if either of us could do it for her. We demurred. When we finished off our bottles of water, she offered us her glass. Again we demurred. So many questions about her, and about them…

We shopped before catching the C3 back to the hotel. The final C3 stop is in front of the University of Granada’s bookstore. Of course we had to go in. It was there I realized that I didn’t have the two bags of souvenirs that were my responsibility. The bus driver that was there when I realized it told us not to panic, that our bus would be back down in 5-10 minutes. He was right, but there were no stray bags inside. That bus driver hadn’t seen or been given anything. The other bus driver pulled up behind her and came to check on us. Nothing for it but to take the bus back up to the Alhambra. I backtracked and found them: in the store where I had popped in to get us some Cokes for the trip back to town. They had stashed them for us. Much gracias-ing and cheek kissing.

Finally back to the hotel for a shower and a drink. Then, at the recommendation of the hotel desk clerk, we headed for the river (a misnomer indeed) and Las Titas. Another wonderful meal in a lovely restaurant.


Wednesday we had a leisurely morning before heading off to the Cathedral. Another second visit for me.

We returned to Bodegas Castaneda for dinner and opted to eat inside. In chatting with the waiter, we found that both Bodegas Castaneda and Las Titas had the same owner. No wonder we loved them both! A little friendly conversation netted us several free dishes and some delicious drinks.

All in all, not bad for a second trip to Granada!

Tips for visiting the Alhambra:

Book your tickets ahead of time, especially in summer; to pick them up, you’ll need the credit card you booked them with. Bypass the ticket lines and go past the book shop to the kiosks on your right. The red machines will take you through the ticket-printing process.

Allow a minimum of 2 hours to explore the Generalife before your ticketed time. I’d suggest 3-3 ½ and take a break between. The Parador restaurant has a lovely view (don’t be in a hurry). The Hotel America was open this time as well, and they have a nice garden restaurant area.

I recommend getting in line for the palace 15-20 minutes ahead of your ticketed time. Take water! We completely forgot, and we were miserable by the time we finished our tour.



A day in Cartagena

A day in Cartagena

I knew when my former teaching partner was coming to visit that I wanted to hit the historical highlights. We taught Humanities together: I covered English with a focus on world literature and she taught World History. History is not only AndaLee’s job; it is her passion.

I met with our travel guide friend Felipe to discuss the best way to cover the Roman sights around us. He suggested a day trip to Cartagena. I had him put it together for us. So, on AndaLee’s first full day in Spain, we all set off with an ambitious plan to “do” the Roman era in Cartagena. And do it we did!

Muralla Punica/Punic Wall

We started at the Centre for the Interpretation of the Punic rampart. An introductory film and a number of explanatory exhibit signs helped to put things into perspective.

The Carthaginian Asdrubal founded Qart-Hadast in 229 BCE. The town was quickly conquered by the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio in 209 BCE.

The museum building encompasses a section of the original Carthaginian wall. The “wall” is actually two parallel walls three stories tall with roofed rooms in between to house horses, men, and supplies. It is a simple but elegant depiction of life within (literally) the ramparts

An added bonus at this museum is the crypt of St. Joseph from the 13th century. Painted skeletons dance on the walls to protect the remains of the brothers of the Guild of St. Joseph buried there within the 110 niches.

Casa de la Fortuna/The House of Fortune

Fortuna propitia inscribed on the flooring of the courtyard of the house gave its name to this house site. The complete house gives you a sense of the layout and décor of a Roman domo in the first century CE.

The first discovery here was of the road in front of the house, and through glass windows in the road you can catch a glimpse of the sewer system that ran beneath the Roman city.


The Augusteum was a meeting place for the priests of the cult of the Emperor Augustus, built in the first century CE.

Roman Forum District

Built in the first century BCE, the complex includes thermal spa baths and an atrium space for religious banquets.

Roman Theatre Museum

The setup for this museum is genius. You enter from Plaza del Ayuntamiento and cross under the street to wind your way through a museum that has breathtaking exhibits of some of the most important discoveries from the theatre excavation. After riding escalators up several floors, you find yourself entering the theatre of ancient Carthago Nova. The theatre was built to hold 6000, and you can roam up and down the aisles and even onto the stage.

While construction of the theater dates to the first century BCE, Cathedral Santa Maria de Gracia was built atop its ruins in the 18th century.

One ticket will gain you entry into all of the sights through the Puerta de Culturas.

not enough time in Prague: Strahov Monastery

not enough time in Prague: Strahov Monastery

Our last day in Prague. We rode tram 22 up to the Strahov Monastery, perhaps my favorite place in Prague (so far).

We began with a visit to the Strahov Monastery Treasury with its collection of liturgical items and other art.

Lunch at the brewery, then to the Library. You can’t actually enter the library rooms, but the exhibits in the hallway are fascinating, and you can take pictures (for an extra fee) from the doorways—awe-inspiring enough!

A glass of home-made iced lemonade (tasted more like orange) at Bellavista while we enjoyed the views, then a trip downhill through town.


not enough time in Prague: Mucha and Vysehrad

not enough time in Prague: Mucha and Vysehrad

Our first priority for Monday was a visit to the Mucha Museum, something we didn’t see in our prior visit in 2011. The 30-minute film was very informative, and his works–including his sketches and photos–are just stunning.

One of the things I love about Prague is the tickets themselves are works of art.


A bus ride up the hill to Vysehrad, where we roamed the park. The Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul was stunning.

In its shadow is the cemetery where many famous people from Czech history lie, including Alphonse Mucha.

The views from Vysehrad are stunning, and it wasn’t as crowded as the Strahov Monastery was.

Dinner was at the Michelin restaurant Le Degustation next to our hotel. We opted for the six-course meal with the wine pairings. A very expensive outing, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!


not enough time in Prague: the Jewish quarter

not enough time in Prague: the Jewish quarter

We started off Sunday with a trip to the street market to pick up a few souvenirs, then got serious about our sightseeing.

We began our tour of the Jewish quarter at the Maisel Synagogue, which houses a museum of Jews in the Bohemian lands from the 10th through the 18th centuries. The synagogue itself dates from the 16th century, but has been renovated and updated. The exhibit inside is beautifully simple.

Next, the Pinkas Synagogue, which serves as a memorial to the victims of the Shoah (Holocaust) from Bohemia and Moravia. Grouped by community, the names of victims have been handwritten on the walls. The original inscription of the 78,000 names took five years. After the fall of the communist regime, the names were restored, a project that took three years. Following flood damage in 2002, the names were restored once again.

The first floor of the Pinkas Synagogue contains a gallery of children’s drawings from Terezin concentration camp, a kind of art therapy directed by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in which children expressed their memories and their hopes for the future. The majority of the child artists died in concentration camps. Many of the 4500 pictures, later found and donated to the Jewish Museum in Prague, have been collected in a book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly.

Last, we strolled through the Old Jewish Cemetery, adjacent to the Pinkas Synagogue, which dates from the 15th to the 18th century.

Our ticket (about 15 euro) also included the Klausen Synagogue (Museum of Jewish Customs and Traditions I), the Ceremonial Hall (Museum of Jewish Customs and Traditions II), the Spanish Synagogue (History of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia II), and the Old-New Synagogue, but we were already overwhelmed and decided to save those for another trip.

After an emotional day of sightseeing, we settled in for dinner at the restaurant down the street recommended by the desk clerk at our hotel: Restaurant U Cerveneho kola (the Red Wheel). We had tried to go there Friday, but a film crew had the street and restaurant closed down. Later, we got pictures of the crew trailers, but we never figured out what the film was.

After dinner, we settled in at the Banker’s Bar adjacent to our hotel. A little pricey, but fancy cocktails are just that way.