2013 Returning to Iberia

Returning to Iberia

This trip, to celebrate our 30th anniversary and to see old friends, began with a bang – literally, as the power supply for our neighborhood blew up, resulting in a 6-hour blackout just as I finished up my packing on the evening before departure.   Fortunately we were not leaving on the 6 am flight, which would have called for dressing and departing in the dark at 4 am..

Once in Madrid, after a restless night on the plane, we ignored all the advice and took a long nap before beginning to explore.  And the first thing I noticed as we browsed in the VIPS store/restaurant was a large display of Halloween items.  Later we saw Halloween material all over town.  This is a marketing triumph, as Halloween was completely unknown when we lived in Madrid in the 1990s.  The Halloween celebration is followed by All Saints Day, a holiday in Spain, and there are tentative signs of Día de los Muertos as well.  

Day of the Dead

Dia de los Muertos Display


Store Halloween Display

Both of these events click with the love of parties – fiestas – that is so strong in Spanish culture.

We spent few days in Madrid, shopping at El Corté Inglés for various things such as a camera (having left mine behind in the chaotic conditions of our departure).  El Corté Inglés is a fantastic department store, selling everything from gourmet food to books, clothing, cosmetics, travel; if they don’t have it you can’t buy it!  And they are famed for their lifetime guarantee on what they sell – and no questions asked return policy.  There are eighty of them now across Iberia and one of the pleasures of traveling on the peninsula.

Then we embarked on our road trip to Lisbon. Our first stop was Ávila and then Ciudad Rodrigo, both ancient walled cities with lodging in paradores in the historic center.  Ciudad Rodrigo was overrun by Wellington’s forces during the Napoleonic Wars, perhaps the last time that it was in the center of events in Spain.  But it’s a beautiful old town, largely made of a golden stone with wonderful carvings and wrought iron everywhere.  


Ciudad Rodrigo as seen from the City Walls

It’s a short distance from Ciudad Rodrigo to Portugal. Shortly after crossing the largely-invisible border the traveler enters the Portuguese autoroute system, all of which now appears to be toll roads.  Along this road, leading all the way to Lisbon, were large overhead “tollgates,” activated for regular users by a chip-card; but for “foreign travelers” it was necessary to enter a special gate and register a credit card.  This same gate recorded the license plate of the vehicle. Then as you advanced there were regular charges recorded – every 10 kilometers or so.  Unfortunately for US credit cards, every time a non-dollar charge is made a foreign-transaction fee is applied by your bank, so the cost of the trip increased even more than the rather substantial cost of the tolls.  Later we realized that had someone else rented the same vehicle and driven into Portugal within the 30 days period of validity for the original registration, we might have found our credit card being charged!  (Which presumably we could have fought by showing evidence that we were not in Portugal after a certain date, but it would not have been fun.  Something to remember should you travel in Portugal…happily the stretch from Lisbon to the border near Mérida was a different operation, the more traditional “get a ticket on entrance and pay on leaving the toll road.”)  

Toll confusion aside, the drive through this very hilly/mountainous region of Portugal was very interesting – we’d not been in that part of the country before.  It became even more interesting when the GPS instructions routed us through a small village, at one point through a street that was so narrow we had to fold in the mirrors in order to enter between the adjoining buildings.  Then through a circuitous route, ending on the wider street that we should have been directed to!  Eventually we arrived in Marvão, a small town of medieval origin perched on a hilltop some 900 meters, about 3000 feet, high.  In the distance to the east was Spain – during the long confrontation between Spain and Portugal all the border was fortified, and this one too had an imposing castle looking over the plains.  We stayed in a pousada here, the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish parador – but the austerity measures in Portugal have included selling off the pousadas to a private hotel chain.  The surprise here in a clearly tourist business was finding that the waiter really did not speak English – that would have been unthinkable several years ago.  But now apparently anyone who is reasonably young and speaks English has departed for other shores in search of work.

Marvao Scene


That evening we dined looking east over the plains, and watched the storms come in.  During the night it began to rain and we had no more vistas.   The rain continued intermittently all the way to Lisbon, where we parked in the underground garage of the hotel and paid no more attention until it was time to go out to dinner – when we discovered that the brief afternoon dry spell had given way to a howling rainstorm.  Prudence dictated that we’d eat in the hotel!  And the next day was spent in the hotel as well…finally the rain stopped and we were able to do some touristy things, such as visiting the Museum of the Orient (which presents the long and fascinating history of Portugal’s exploration and colonization of large chunks of Asia), and the Gulbenkian Institute where we saw a wonderful exhibit on the political and cultural aspects of tiles (yes, you read that correctly).  The Gulbenkian also has a splendid café with an outside deck, in the middle of a beautiful swath of parkland. 

Gulbenkian Garden

 Most relaxing.  Another highlight was the Pharmacy Museum and the incorporated Pharmacy restaurant, featuring a long list of small plates that we greatly enjoyed (I’ve always preferred having several small tastes over one huge entrée).  We also had a fine seafood dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront with a great view of the April 24 bridge high over the river.

Lisbon seemed to be doing well despite the grinding austerity programs – it was packed with people (our hotel had no vacancies at all).  Stores and restaurants were full.  Some friends said that tourism on the southern side of the Mediterranean was suffering due to the unrest in several countries, so it was shifting to Portugal (and Spain).  

Leaving Portugal behind, we crossed back into Spain for a stop in Mérida, an ancient city full of Roman ruins.  Around every corner are bits and pieces of the Roman settlement here, including a fine bridge that you can walk across!  PHOTOS  Happily we enjoyed fine weather here, making it possible to just stroll around and appreciate the city.  And we had one of the best meals we had on the whole trip, in a relatively new place called Rex Numitor – that offered not only delicious food but a serene atmosphere!  If you have occasion to visit Mérida don’t miss this one. 



After Mérida we headed back to Madrid, where we ditched the car, and spent a week in a rented apartment just south of Atocha rail station.   This was a pleasant but rather uninteresting neighborhood (with the exception of the amazing railroad museum just around the corner, which we had somehow never visited when we lived in Madrid), and we decided that should we be able to return we’d ensure that we were in lodgings that were walking distance to good shops and restaurants.  Getting on the Metro every time you want to have a meal is a pain!  But it was a wonderful nostalgia trip.   We were there for Halloween, and marveled at the sight of fathers walking their kids dressed as witches as such to school – and then in the evening the costumes we passed were simply amazing.  Spain – or at least Madrid - has really taken this holiday as its own.

Good things come to an end – and we headed home, regretful to leave friends behind but glad to return to our own bed and bath!

To see some of our photos, click here.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Richard W. Tripp, Jr.