Friday, October 9, 2015

Coffy Brown in Espana y Portugal !

So, I know that in my last post, I told all of you that I would be blogging every day from Spain during my vacation.  Unfortunately, the trip that I took was such a whirlwind that I was barely able to catch my breath. In addition, once I arrived home, I really needed some time to process the trip and give you my observations. I have separated this into four sections. Firstly, an overview and the nuts and bolts of my Iberian Peninsula vacation ;what I didn't like,  what I liked , and finally my recommendations on how to avoid the things that I didn't like, if you  happen decide that you'd like to take a tour.  Here goes!

Cosmos and Budget Travel

 Since inventing the budget vacation over 50 years ago, Cosmos has offered savvy, value-minded travelers the most affordable travel packages to the world's most captivating places - from the City of Brotherly Love to the City of Light…from the Great White North to Northern Africa…to tropical Hawaii,  there are few places in the world that Cosmos doesn't go! Their  incredible value helps travel buffs travel more often. Many people feel that travel, particularly international travel is far out of their reach. Because of companies like Cosmos, it isn't. They target the customer who wants to get out and experience the world and would rather have an extra day in an exotic location than a chocolate on their pillow and turn down service.  Cosmos' vacation packages feature comfortable clean hotels, ( some better that others) , guided city sightseeing: a comfortable motor coach with free wifi, and many meals. Now, I will freely admit that I got everything that they promised in the brochure. But, there were some quality issues here and there. The final hotel that we stayed at in Madrid was an absolute DUMP ( but they did sell me an adapter to charge my phone for two euros which was a deal. ) The hotel in  Lisbon was lovely, but the service  and food were atrocious. I honestly don't think that they liked Americans. The entire vacation , nine days, hotels and air  fare with the services of an outstanding Spanish and Portuguese speaking tour director , was $3, 074. That includes a $400 single supplement and $100 trip insurance. ( I always purchase trip insurance, you should too! That's a lie. I purchase it sometimes. ) I was able to make a down payment and pay for my trip in installments with the final payment due forty-five days prior to departure. Being able to make payments on a vacation a year or two years in advance makes them much more attainable for most people. Now, let's get to the bad stuff first. 

The Bad News ( what I didn't like)

 As I mentioned earlier, my vacation was a complete whirlwind and although it is absolutely what Cosmos promised, nine  cities in nine days is a bit overwhelming. The hotel quality was not consistent. Every place was neat and clean, but the final hotel was extremely rundown and the elevators made a serious grinding noise which made me worry a cable would snap at any moment. The hotel in Lisbon which was very nice,  had the most rude front desk staff that I have ever encountered and the food in most places left a lot to be desired. Now, some of my distaste for the food is cultural, ( not in Lisbon the food at Hotel Roma was just plain bad.) They eat a great deal of pork on the Iberian Peninsula and they don't brown it. Where I come from, "Thou Shalt Not Eat Rare Pork" is the eleventh commandment.  As a result, I ate a lot of fruits and vegetables on vacation and even ventured into a Hard Rock Cafe and a TGI Fridays while I was there. Oh, and Starbucks saved my life! ( If you want ice in a drink in Europe, Starbucks is your best bet . ) I generally don't eat at American restaurants while on vacation, but after nothing but fruits and vegetables,( which were actually very good by the way), I needed a steak.  The time difference from Madrid to Oakland, CA where I live is nine hours. So, I was tired the first couple of days. And then, midway through, just to make things interesting, the time went back an hour upon our arrival in Portugal. I paid for several optional excursions while on vacation. There were a few that could have been better.  A Fado  ( Portuguese folks music) show with dinner ( the dinner was not impressive),  a tour of Madrid where the tour guide couldn't seem to stop talking about the most gory aspects of bullfighting ( even when we made it clear that we found bull fighting distasteful ), and a tour of Seville that didn't really cover the areas of Seville that I wanted to see. I never saw the Metropol Parasol which was  one of the attractions that I was  most excited  to see. Any formal city tour should have included  it.  I also think that they need to get guides who actually speak English. Now, many of them claimed to speak English, but as far as I'm concerned, their accents were so thick that what language they were truly speaking was questionable. 

The Steak sandwich that I ordered from the Hotel Roma. I took one bite and threw it away. 


Our Lady of Fatima

One of the most polarizing stops on the tour was the visit to Fatima, Portugal.   The name of the town and parish evolved from the Arabic name Fatima, the name of a Moorish Princess and ultimately, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad.  The history of Fatima is associated with three local children: Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who on May 13, 1917 , while guarding their sheep in the Cova da Ina , witnessed an apparition of a lady dressed in white.The lady, later referred to as Our Lady of the Rosary, indicated that she was sent by God with a message of prayer, repentance and consecrations. She visited the children on the 13th day of each month from May to October. The last apparition occurred on October 13, 1917,  the 70,000 pilgrims in attendance witnessed the "Miracle of the Sun. ".The Miracle of the Sun was an event which occurred just after midday on Sunday , October 13, 1917, attended by some 30,000 to 100,000 people who were gathered near Fatima, Portugal. Several newspaper reporters were in attendance and they took testimony from many people who claimed to have witnessed extraordinary solar activity. This recorded testimony was later added to by an Italian Catholic priest and researcher in the 1940s.
According to these reports, the event lasted approximately ten minutes. The three children (Lucia dos Santos, Jacinta Marto and Francisco Marto) who originally claimed to have seen Our Lady of  Fatima also reported seeing a panorama of visions, including those of Jesus, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and of  Saint Joseph blessing the people.
The event was officially accepted as a miracle by the Roman Catholic Church on  October 13, 1930. On  October 13, 1951, the papal legate , Cardinal Teschini  told the million people gathered at Fatima that on  October 30, October 31, November 1, and  November  8, 1950, Pope Pius  himself witnessed the miracle  of the sun from the Vatican gardens.   Our Lady of Fatima  gave the children a message that consisted of three secrets: first, a vision of Hell,  "where the souls of the sinful would travel" without prayer; the second, prophesied the beginning of the Second World War; and ultimately, the mysterious Third Secret , which Dos Santos transcribed in 1944, and has been held by the Vatican since 1957.

  The Lady asked the children to do penance and acts of reparation and make personal sacrifices to save sinners. The children who were all no older than nine , complied by wearing tight cords around their waists, beating themselves with stinging nettles, abstaining  from drinking water on hot days, and performing  other acts of penance.  This is my first issue with the miracle of the apparitions .  Although I am a person of faith, I simply do not believe that God tells people  ( and certainly not children) to harm themselves.  Fatima, Portugal is now the most visited religious site in Europe. There is a fountain with miracle water and a thriving consumerist economy in Fatima, all based around the apparitions viewed by the children .  This  segways into   my second issue with the stop in Fatima, Portugal. The  water from the miracle fountain  is free, however,  you can buy all manner of bottles to put it in. There are also a plethora of religious artifacts available for purchase and there is an eternal flame where people can light candles and pray to the Virgin Mary for intersession with a problem. The candles are the standard length and some are as long as five feet. What is the religious significance of the length of the candles? The only difference is how much you can afford to pay to purchase them.  The best description of Our Lady of Fatima in my mind is a   " Mc Shrine".   I felt more like I was in the temple with the money changers than a holy place. So, while many on the tour  filled their bags up with bottles of miracle water, glow in the dark Rosary beads, and  plastic key chains featuring  the Virgin Mary and the Pope,  I went and found a bar. ( Yeah, I said it.) 

Basically, I could have done without this stop entirely. 

The Good News (What I liked)

So, the Spanish way of life is vastly different from the way we live in America. They say that Siesta is the national sport of Spain. What is Siesta? Well, the Spanish actually take three hours out during the middle of the day in order to go home and eat lunch as a family. After the three hour break, they return to work/school,  and work another three to four hours, finishing their workday around eight in the evening.  This later scheduling and Siesta is the result of the location of Spain and it's relation to the sun. Here in America, noon is considered mid-day because that is the time the sun is highest in the sky.  As such, noon, mid day is lunch time. The Spanish have lunch when the sun is highest in the sky as well. But, that doesn't happen at noon. The sun is highest in the sky at around 2:20 - 3pm. ,and that is when they take lunch and why lunch and everything else is so much later than what we as Americans are accustomed to. It can still be light out at 11pm in Spain. The Spanish enjoy a very social lifestyle. At the end of the work day, they head to the square and connect with friends and family. It doesn't matter that it's the middle of the week. No one waits until the weekend to enjoy life and have fun. In the evenings, the streets are filled with people out and about enjoying life. Side walk cafes  and restaurants are bustling with activity and camaraderie.  although it may take a while to get waited on in a restaurant, ( the waiters often act as though you are bothering them when you sit down at a table)  the Spanish have a "Big Easy " sort of attitude where everything is taken in stride and timeliness is not as important as it is to us here in the States. ( this may be part of the reason that their economy is not doing so well. )  Basically, the Spanish work to live, they don't live to work. 

The Coliseum in Italica held 26,000 people.

Me in Italica just outside Seville, Spain

Man having a puppet show in Salamanca

Seville , Spain

Avila, Spain 

The view from the top of the hill in Coimbra, Portugal

Walking the streets of Avila, Spain

There's an astronaut on the molding of the 300 year old church in Salamanca!

A window in Salamanca, Spain. The entire city is made of that golden stone.

Grapes vines hanging from a balcony in Salamanca, Spain.

The river outside our first hotel in Madrid. The first one was nice. The second, was questionable.

Me at the top of the hill in Lisbon, Portugal before the Fado show.

The Grand Mosque Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain

The Grand Mosque Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain
The Statue is a message that the musician should play the instrument in the same way that he would caress a womans's body. Coimbra, Portugal

The back of the above statue, Coimbra, Portugal

They like pork in Spain and Portugal.

Photo of me in the ancient walled city of Avila.

Moasaic tiles at the from the bottom of a pool in Italica.

A passage way in Coimbra.

Me and my friend Maggie from Egypt!

Obidos, Portugal

Ancient Roman decorations on the entrance to Obidos, Portugal!

They REALLY like Pork in Spain and Portugal.

Me on the tour bus in Lisbon, Portugal!

One of the residents of Obidos.

Cordoba, Spain

The Grand Mosque Cathedral Cordoba, Spain

The Grand Mosque Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

As I mentioned earlier, we visited several small towns, and even though I was in a whirlwind and dead dog tired, I am glad that we took time to stop and visit the  small towns in Spain and Portugal.  Avila, Coimbra, Salamanca, and Obidos took my breath away. They are old charming cities with beautiful architecture, and unlike in the larger towns, the inhabitants were very warm and welcoming. I suspect that tourism has a much more direct impact on what goes on the dinner table in the smaller towns and they truly did  not  appear to resent our  presence. Also, the prices of goods were outstanding. I purchased handmade items  for fabulous prices that would have easily cost me four or five times as much in the U.S. The small town residents  also take pride in their cities and seem to enjoy it when they see appreciation mirrored in the faces of visitors.

An additional  aspect of the tour that I  really enjoyed were the  other people from all over the world who were on it. The only thing we initially had in common is that we all spoke English.  I met people from Canada, Egypt, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Scotland. I am still in contact with a couple of them via email, and I doubt that I would have been able to have such an engaging experience with people from all over the world had it not been for this tour. One more cute little bonus was that I was able to see a couple of singles ( Not Me) make a love connection. They started out not knowing each other and by the end of the tour, they were taking all of their meals and tours together and romance was in the air. 

The two sites that struck me the most during my vacation were the ancient Roman City of Italica and the Grand Mosque of Cordoba. Italica is a Roman city that is around two thousand years old. At it's height, there were 250,000 inhabitants. Roman building techniques were so advanced that these people had indoor plumbing and the sewer system is still intact. ( the palace at Versailles was built hundreds of year after Italica without one single bathroom. ) Next, the Grand Mosque at Cordoba. Cordoba was the capitol of the entire region under Moorish Rule. At a time when England had eight thousand inhabitants and Paris had four thousand ,  Cordoba had one million. Being in Cordoba, the ruins of Italica , Avila, Coimbra, Obidos, Salamanca  was like walking in a living breathing artwork by one of the old masters. And, although I would not recommend that you take the whirlwind trip that I did, these cities are something that everyone should see once in their lifetime . They were magnificent. 

My Recommendations

So, as I mentioned earlier, my trip was a whirlwind. Even though we spent overnights in five cities, I still was barely able to catch my breath. One of the reasons for this was all of the optional excursions that I took. I toured Lisbon and attended a Fado show, toured Seville and also attended a Flamenco Show, toured the Grand Mosque at Cordoba,  and attended Madrid by night with Tapas ( that meal was delicious. We ate pork cheeks. But, they were well seasoned and well done, so I thought that I was eating a pork roast.) I  participated in all of these excursions along with the excursions included in the tour. If I had it to do over again, I would not have signed up for any  additional excursions. I could have visited Italica, and the Grand Mosque of Cordoba without being on an organized tour.  I would have enjoyed both more just observing and going at my own less accelerated time table. In fact, lets talk about the itinerary. Since our schedule was so tight, we had a number of very early wake up calls, something that I don't like EVER, but certainly not on vacation. We spent more time on the tour bus than I would have liked. The tour director was very entertaining and the motor coach was air conditioned and comfortable with WIFi. But, that was time that I  could have spent just enjoying the cities that we visited. Now, with all that being said, I would take another tour. Traveling as a single,  a tour gives you added protection . There is someone there looking out for you and if you want to make friend, most other folks are very welcoming. Especially, other singles who are looking for someone to hang out with.  Of course, the next tour that I take will be of a different type and this is what I would also recommend to you. Many tour operators, including Cosmos offer Independent tours. I actually have my eye on one that includes 
Dubai, Bangkok with an extension to  Phuket for next year. What will be the difference? In an independent tour, the tour company arranges your hotels, and flights. There is a local point person to give you suggestions on what you might like to do and what restaurants are good, but once you arrive in the city, your time is your own. There might be a short train ride or flight from city to city, but you won't spend extended time rolling along the countryside.  You get the benefits of packaged pricing which is almost always better than purchasing airline and hotels individually but, you are on your very own schedule. Next time, I will also pay a tad bit more in order to get nicer accommodations. In fact, the tour that I  am considering offers very nice hotels and AMERICAN breakfast every morning as a part of the package. ( No more undercooked bacon for me.) An additional issue on my tour that some might find challenging was the age demographic of most of the attendees. I think the average age was fifty-five with a few folks in their thirties and forties and quite a few who were retired. The way to get around that, if you're not interested in an independent tour is to try Contiki tours. Contiki has an age demographic of eighteen to thirty-five years old with most attendees somewhere in between. 

In conclusion, as I stated earlier. Yes, I absolutely without a doubt, would take another tour. In spite of some challenges, I would not give up the experience I had on the Jewels of Spain and Portugal tour for anything in the world. Travel changes you. It enhances who you already are. It expands you in ways that no other experience can.  And, your Miss Brown is no exception. I am a richer, bolder and a more flavorful version of the force of nature that you already know.  And , once you step out and view another part of the world, whether in the states or abroad, you will be too! That's all for  always...

Keep it  Caliente y Dulce!

Miss Brown

PS- if my photos seem to not have any rhyme or reason with regard to placement, simply a reflection of my whirlwind experience.