A Travellerspoint blog

A Proper English Experience: Yorkshire and Oxfordshire

Thanks to the epidemic I finally have the time to write about trips from years long past that I never thought I would chronicle. As my collection of blog entries has grown I've realized how valuable they may be one day for my kids so I've decided to try and document all the trips we've taken since they were born. After six years some of the memories are a little vague but fortunately I have plenty of photographs to jog my memory and reverse image searches if I simply can't quite remember where they were taken.

Although I have at least twenty blog entries apiece for Spain, France, and Italy I have none so far for England. We've been there twice since Cleo was born, once as a quick stop on our way to China when Cleo was an infant and once a year later when we had both Cleo and Ian. We haven't returned not for any lack of love for the country, but because we simply can't manage three children without the option to drive ourselves around. Driving on the left is one risk I don't feel comfortable taking, as I'm fairly absent-minded and tend to fall back on muscle memory when I'm on the road. As soon as our youngest is old enough to carry his own pack onto trains I'm sure we'll take a lengthy trip through England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland but that's still a few years in the future.

Our 2014 visit was another episode of the greatest travel year of our lives, in which we took no less than seven trips. The genesis of this particular journey was our desire to see the Notting Hill Carnival after having an amazing experience at Carnival in Trinidad a few years earlier. We had loved London the year before and were looking for any excuse to return. Of course we weren't going to fly all the way to Europe for just three days so we included short stays in Yorkshire and Oxfordshire to fill out a week. My cousin and his family live in Oxford which made that stop especially enticing.

The red eye deposited us in Heathrow on a Wednesday morning. I remember the immigration agent was very pleased by Cleo's name and thanked us for helping to keep the old-fashioned name alive. We took a train from the airport to Kings Cross where hourly trains departed to York and elected not to purchase reserved seats for the relatively short journey. This proved to be a mistake because while there should have been enough room in general seating there was none on the car we chose and we were far too weighted down with bags and strollers to go exploring through the different cars. I found an uncomfortable spot on the floor near the bags and Mei Ling took the kids into the adjacent car with reserved seats. I hadn't slept on the flight but there was no rest on the hard train floor with the wheels clattering underneath me and the wifi was barely functional. Eventually I picked myself up and went in the direction Mei Ling had gone. I found her in the midst of a rather nasty argument with an English woman of about the same age sitting across from her. The crux of the woman's displeasure seemed to be that Mei Ling had helped herself to an open seat despite not having a reservation for it. I didn't worry much as Mei Ling can certainly take care of herself, but after a couple of minutes I grew tired of watching the bickering and asked Mei Ling "What's the matter, did you drop a house on her sister?" A man in the same booth who had his face buried in a newspaper made a muffled choking sound. The woman glared at me, just now making the connection that Mei Ling and I were together and she was outnumbered. She turned her attention to the window and soon after that we arrived in York.

Our reception wasn't much better at the bed and breakfast we'd reserved. The online booking service we'd used hadn't offered us any option to list the kids in our party but we hadn't worried about that much. They were only babies. The elderly couple who came to the door took a look at the double stroller and immediately announced that they didn't accept children. We were somewhat nonplussed as the listing on the booking service had made no mention of that. Couldn't they make an exception for two nights? We had been traveling for almost twenty hours by now. No, they replied, absolutely not. There was some kind of fire code they had to abide by. I could tell they were lying about the fire code, but I could also tell it didn't bother them in the slightest to turn away a family with two babies without the slightest offer of assistance. We had to beg just to be allowed into the lobby to phone another hotel to see if they could accommodate us on short notice. Fortunately we were able to find one just a couple of blocks away and we were able to schlep ourselves over there without too much trouble. It was a tiny fifth-floor walk-up but we were glad to have it, and the staff at the new hotel were very warm and welcoming. By this point we were too tired to do anything except find our way to the nearest pub for dinner.
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I had chosen York because I was entranced with the idea of a quintessential English city that had retained much of its medieval character. We awoke with plenty of energy for exploration and quickly crossed the River Ouse into the historic town center. York had a much more easygoing vibe than London although the center seemed similarly adapted to tourism. The brick buildings and half-timbered facades gave the streets a lot of character, although I'm not sure how much of the design was original or authentic.
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Looming north of the town center is the Gothic masterpiece York Minster, famed for its enormous trove of stained glass windows. The Great East Window in particular is the largest single expanse of stained glass in England.
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Just next to York Minster we stumbled upon Gray's Court, a large and historic estate that has been renovated into a hotel and restaurant. We had a refreshing lunch and spent some time strolling around the beautifully-landscaped estate that was evocative of the English countryside.
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In the afternoon we boarded a bus to Castle Howard, an enormous private mansion that was the setting for the television series "Brideshead Revisited". The estate is still owned by the descendants of the English noble family it was built for but it is now open to the public for paid tours. The mansion was on the scale of royal residences we had seen in other parts of Europe and had stunning lawns and gardens to stroll around in as well.
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In the evening we returned to the city center for dinner. The atmosphere felt quite upbeat despite the grey sky and intermittent drizzle, and fortunately we had ponchos and stroller covers so we never had to worry about seeking shelter. We spent the last hour before dinner exploring the famous Shambles shopping street and the narrow alleys known as snickelways.
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The next day I made sure to reserve seats for the train ride back south to the Cotswolds. We only had one night to spend in that iconic region before moving on to Oxford and I'd chosen a B&B in the small town of Burford. We arrived in plenty of time to explore the small town and admire the characteristic homes built from the local golden limestone. Burford was the most emblematic English town I could imagine, with rows of ancient yet pristine homes surrounded by sharply trimmed lawns and explosions of flowers.
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Burford's gothic church was like a miniature version of York Minster, with a spooky graveyard full of weathered, illegible headstones. We topped of the evening with a beer at the local pub and then an excellent dinner back at the Bull.
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In the morning we decided to take a scenic walk along the road that followed the course of the Windrush River until we reached the bridge to the tiny village of Swinbrook, three miles away. Along the way we encountered beautiful pastures, a crab apple tree with ripe fruit, and all manner of farm animals.
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Just as we reached Swinbrook we got a call from my cousin Steven who was scheduled to pick us up in Burford that afternoon. He was ahead of schedule and on the road already. We arranged for him to pick us up in Swinbrook since it was on the way and would save us the trouble of retracing our walk back to Burford. We waited for him at a group of picnic tables alongside the river that belonged to a country inn across the road.
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It was just a half hour drive from Burford to Oxford, but for some reason Ian burst out crying about halfway there and couldn't be consoled. It wasn't very typical of him but I'd heard enough crying in the two years since Cleo had been born that I barely noticed it. Steven on the other hand seemed to get quite stressed, frequently calling to the back seat that we were almost there. After a few minutes I apologized for the noise but reassured him it wasn't anything to worry about. I was a little surprised since Steven had two young sons of his own, but they were already a few years older and out of the crying stage. He got a remote look in his eyes for a moment and then said "Oh yes ... one forgets." Once we reached Oxford and jumped out of the car Ian stopped crying as if someone had flipped a switch.

Steven had to stop off at his office for a couple of hours so we took a walk around the center of Oxford. It was obviously a college town, with an incongruous juxtaposition of historic edifices and fast food joints. North of the city the twisty Thames sends off several streams and tributaries, many of them man-made in medieval times to feed the water mills. Just west of the center we ran into Castle Mill Stream, an idyllic spot seemingly a world away from the hubbub of the student environment.
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The next morning the adults relaxed over tea while the kids got acquainted with their cousins, who were amazingly tolerant of children who were far too young to play with them productively.
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There just happened to be a food festival going on that afternoon so we ignored the gathering clouds and took a bus over to the fairground. It was pretty standard food truck stuff for the most part with mainly Caribbean and Middle Eastern themes. One exception was the exotic meat burgers that we often find at food festivals in England. We can't resist trying them but whether wildebeest or lion meat they all taste pretty much like standard beef burgers. By now Cleo had attached herself to her younger cousin and the two of them were inseparable, which was quite cute. However, when Cleo decided to rock out to the festival band covering Bon Jovi her new companion hung back in a very English way.
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After the festival Steven got us to the train station for the short hop back to London. After an enjoyable prelude we were now ready for the main event of our trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:02 Archived in England Tagged england travel york family yorkshire blog Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Evora and return to Lisbon

I've always noted how flat and featureless the landscape of Spain appears from the major highways, but this was particularly apparent in the western region of Extremadura. This is probably Spain's least visited region as well, the home of cities with familiar names such as Mérida and Cáceres that did not evoke any particular images. The highway skirted even the smallest towns with a wide margin so we didn't get any sense of Extremadura besides the unremarkable flatlands, but we made a mental note that one day we should return. For the present, we'd decided that our best bet for an overnight stop was the Portuguese town of Evora, a full five hour drive from Madrid.
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Far from the Atlantic coast, Evora is off the map of international tourism but it was a welcome discovery for us. The historic center of the small town is filled with character and also boasts a very well-preserved Roman temple. We arrived in the evening and had a hearty Portuguese dinner which was most memorable for our first bottle of Alentejo wine. Evora is at the heart of the Alentejo wine country, far less well-known abroad than the Douro and Dao but in my opinion equally deserving of recognition. The deep red wine provided an immediate pleasurable astringency at the first sip coupled with a long, savory finish. In the morning we explored the compact center which was almost completely devoid of tourists.
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The Temple of Diana occupies a splendid position in the center of a cobblestone square, incongruously surrounded by a park and traditional Portuguese whitewashed facades. Oddly enough there's no real reason to think the temple has anything to do with the goddess Diana. It was built to honor the Roman Emperor Augustus as a god and the association with Diana is an invention by a local priest in the 17th century.
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One of Evora's more macabre sights is the Capela dos Ossos, a Franciscan chapel whose walls are covered by thousands of human skulls and long bones. This is the only ossuary in Portugal, although there are a few others scattered around Europe including the famous Catacombs of Paris. It seems the motivation of these bone churches is to remind the visitor of the fleeting nature of life, but I would have been satisfied with a simple inscription to that effect.
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We returned to Lisbon on somewhat different terms than our first arrival. We now had navigation to keep us safely on the main roads until we reached our destination, and we were staying in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. Our choice paid off, as we had more space in the apartment as well as a working kitchen for about half the price that we had paid for our hotel. Since that trip we have rarely stayed in a hotel in Europe, and never in the United States. On our first evening back in Lisbon we only had time for a quick dinner and a ride up the short funicular called Elevador da Glória for the views over the city from Bairro Alto.
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We had one final day in Lisbon which we spent mainly on a return visit to Cervejaria Ramiro and a visit to the municipal market to gather ingredients for a final home-cooked meal. Cervejaria Ramiro was a little anti-climactic as we had already pulled out all the stops on our first visit weeks before. Before returning to the Airbnb to cook we took a stroll down one of the tiled pedestrian streets in Baixa towards the river. A crowd had gathered to watch a few people dancing to the beat of a street drummer. Someone began blowing a horn in time to the drum, a few others began singing, and suddenly the crowd erupted into a spontaneous dance party that lasted for several minutes. Cleo was really excited by the scene and was pulling Mei Ling into the center of it, although she was terrified when one tall fellow bent down to dance with her. Then it was over as quickly as it had begun and we continued back on our route.
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A short distance further we found ourselves at the most well-known place in Lisbon that we had missed on our first visit. A triumphal arch heralds the entrance into Praça do Comércio, an expansive square lined with government office buildings in the shape of a U. The open side of the U faces the water. The ground floor of the buildings was dedicated to restaurants and cafes which weren't particularly busy on this chilly winter night. In the center of the square is a monument of King José I mounted on his horse. The steps around the monument were mostly occupied by drinkers oblivious to the strong smell of urine. Cleo found herself a balloon and occupied herself chasing it around the square while I followed close behind to make sure she didn't stray to close to the noxious monument steps.
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We had an early flight back to Miami and hauled ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to bundle the bags and sleeping kids into the car for one final drive to the airport. As we passed through Lisbon's silent, deserted streets I couldn't believe that we'd pulled off everything we had planned with only minor inconveniences. We had been pretty lucky along the way, especially with some of the navigational blunders and almost being separated when the train stopped in Marrakech. The success of the road trip opened up a whole new world for us in Europe of small towns and out-of-the-way places that would be unreachable with public transportation. In the five years since then we've repeated the feat five more times, with each adventure more ambitious than the last.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:57 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Toledo and Madrid

The drive into Toledo was nothing like the approach into the great cities of flat Andalusia. The city appeared to us from far away like an apparition, a magical kingdom floating above the horizon and topped by an amazing castle. By now we were used to the daunting experience of driving into the historic center of a Spanish city, but it didn't make our arrival to our hotel next to the cathedral any easier. Fortunately we didn't get lost and none of the narrow passages were completely unnavigable so we arrived safely with a minimum of hair loss. We had spent most of the day walking around Córdoba and on the road so we only had time for a short walk in the center and dinner at our grotto-like hotel restaurant before bed.
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In the morning we made the obligatory visit to the 13th century Gothic cathedral which sat just outside our door. The belltower was quite different from the Muslim-styled versions we had seen in Andalusia. Aside from that we were already cathedraled out from our stay in Andalusia and only took a cursory look around the interior.
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We began climbing uphill through the winding streets of the Casco Historico until we reached a scenic viewpoint from which we could see the roof of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside. We could also see a bend of our old friend from Lisbon the Tagus River. Eventually we reached the surprisingly expansive Plaza Zocodover where we stopped for lunch.
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At the top of the hill we were close to the Alcazar that crowns Toledo's iconic layout but as in Córdoba we gave it a miss. Instead we descended all the way back downhill almost to the river where we admired the Gothic revival facade of Toledo's School of the Arts.
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That day we had our shortest drive of the trip so we were still feeling energetic when we arrived at our place in central Madrid. Our experience in Córdoba hadn't soured us on Airbnb and the apartment in Madrid was a huge improvement. We'd learned from our bad experience and had been much more selective this time around. After we were settled we browsed for tapas around Puerta del Sol. The wide pedestrian streets were packed with people despite the winter chill.
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We began our one full day of sightseeing at Plaza Mayor, in the heart of Old Madrid. This enormous square dates back to the 15th century when it was used as a market. The square is now an expansive open space enclosed by classic three-story residential buildings including the beautifully-painted Casa de Panaderia. Plaza Mayor is a hub of tourism which sustains the surrounding arcades full of overpriced cafes and the many street performers who ply their trade on the cobblestones. By far the most entertaining of these to us was a supremely talented giant soap bubble artisan who specialized in enclosing entire humans within his diaphanous creations.
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Eating at one of the tourist traps in the plaza was out of the question, but fortunately we were just a few steps from Mercado de San Miguel, which may have been Ground Zero for the food hall movement when it opened in 2009. Here we had our choice of some of the freshest seafood tapas we had encountered in Spain thanks to the seafood market that was in the same building. It was quite a bit more expensive than the average lunch in Madrid but it was worth it. The awesome experience of eating at a selection of different restaurants in a market atmosphere awakened a love of food halls that has taken us to similar venues around the world since then.
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After the Mercado we continued a little further west to the Royal Palace of Madrid. We're not big fans of historical landmarks so we just admired the beautiful buildings and gardens from the outside and let Cleo stretch her legs in the central plaza.
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From the palace we set off on a long meandering walk north of the center that took us through the beautiful Malasaña and Chueca neighborhoods. These cosmopolitan areas were filled with the classic, ornate multistory buildings that Madrid is famous for.
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Eventually we found ourselves at Mercado de la Paz in Salamanca. This was a much different environment from Mercado de San Miguel in that it was clearly there to service a very discriminating but local clientele. There were very authentic tapas places in and all around the market and late afternoon was prime time for eating in Madrid.
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A straight shot south brought us to Puerta de Alcalá, the Neoclassical gate that marks the entrance to Retiro Park. El Retiro occupies a large chunk of central Madrid and is renowned for its extensive gardens, the Crystal Palace, and the Alfonso XII monument. During the summer the steps of the monument are packed with readers and sunbathers, lazily observing the myriad rowboats in the adjacent lake, but on this cool winter evening we had the park largely to ourselves. We took advantage of an empty bench to consume the irresistible fruits we had purchased at the market.
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We had made the most of just one full day in Madrid, submerging ourselves in markets and atmospheric streets without wasting precious time inside buildings and museums. In the morning we returned to Mercado de San Miguel. It was just too good to pass up compared to the pedestrian tapas offering in the touristic center. After bidding farewell to Plaza Mayor and its entertainers we set a course for the Portuguese border far to the west. Our Iberian road trip was rapidly approaching its conclusion.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 13:29 Archived in Spain Tagged toledo travel spain madrid family blog iberia Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Cadíz and Córdoba

It felt odd to return to Cadíz, a compact city we felt we'd fully explored a week earlier, but we hoped that the Carnaval celebration would make the detour worthwhile. The sight of the same hotel we'd stayed in before and the familiar streets of the old town reminded us that every place we ever visited continued on with its own existence parallel to ours even after we had moved along and rarely thought of it. We went out for a walk and found that while the streets of the Casco Historico may have been the same the atmosphere was quite different. The old town was already packed with revelers in the early evening, many of them in colorful and creative costumes. As the sun went down we made our way to the ancient city gate where a crowd was gathering to watch the Carnaval parade. The floats and revelers had already begun to pass through the gate and the joyous procession continued for another hour. After dark we returned to the crowded alleys around the market and found them approaching a state of bedlam. We held out as long as we could but soon it became apparent that inebriation was becoming the dominant theme and we retired for the night.
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The next morning the drunkenness had thankfully vanished but there were still plenty of festivities and costumed characters roaming the streets. This was the fourth Carnaval I'd experienced on three continents and it was amazing how completely different they all had been. The Cadíz version was more reminiscent of Halloween street parties in major American cities than it was of the Carnavals I'd seen in South America and Trinidad. The vibe was awesome and the setting in the Casco Historico was unbeatable.
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The Mercado Central was closed but vendors had set up shot in the surrounding arcades so that we were able to put together a delicious meal of crabs, shellfish, oysters and sea urchins.
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We hung around the Casco Historico the rest of the morning soaking up the atmosphere and participating as much as we could without ever understanding exactly what was going on. Large crowds gathered wherever there were open spaces and it seemed like things were gearing up for another huge parade but eventually we decided we had seen enough. We still had Andalusia's last great Moorish city ahead of us. We gathered the car and the suitcases and set a course for Córdoba.
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In Córdoba we experimented with Airbnb for the first time. Driving through the narrow streets in the historic center was another hair-raising experience. One corner was so tight that it was impossible to negotiate. We had to turn in the opposite direction and then circle a block to get back on the right track. We found ourselves in a somewhat cramped and dingy second-floor apartment that wasn't a very good omen of what we might expect from Airbnb. The sunset brought with it the chilliest weather we'd experienced on the trip thus far and after dinner we kept our evening walk brief. One highlight was the restored Puerta del Puente which marks the entrance of the old city for travelers arriving via the Roman bridge.
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It turned out that the shabbiness of our accommodation should have been the least of our concerns. On the coldest night of our trip we found ourselves without any heat whatsoever. We had enough blankets and clothing to keep the kids warm but Mei Ling and I shivered through the night with little sleep. In the morning we were glad to pack our belongings and be shut of the place forever. After breakfast in the municipal market, we strolled the colorful streets around the center. Córdoba had a distinctive atmosphere from the other Andalusian cities with whitewashed buildings and colorful trim that reminded us of the Algarve.
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The focal point of the historic center is La Mezquita, an important mosque during the Moorish epoch of Andalusia. After Córdoba was reconquered by Castile the mosque was reconsecrated as a Christian church and a cathedral was erected in the center, but much of the original Islamic structure was left intact, The incongruous result is famed for its great hall supported by an array of stone columns connected by arches with distinctive red and white stripes. The minaret of the mosque was demolished and replaced with a towering classically Spanish cathedral belltower.
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Córdoba has its own Alcázar but with limited time and fresh off visits to the castles in Sevilla and Granada we contented ourselves with a visit to the outer walls. Close by is the city's restored Roman Bridge which crosses the Guadalquivir, the same river which later passes through Sevilla. Here the river was muddy and brown in contrast to the blue-green we had seen in Sevilla. We ended our visit to Córdoba with lunch in the Juderia, the city's ancient Jewish quarter which is filled with narrow cobblestone streets decorated with colorful trim and wrought-iron balconies. The neighborhood contains many relics of its former Jewish identity from the days of the caliphate including a synagogue and a statue of the philosopher Maimonides.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 09:03 Archived in Spain Tagged travel cadiz spain family carnaval carnival cordoba blog iberia Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Gibraltar and Granada

Gibraltar is one of the more unusual places in Iberia. Aside from the fact that most of its area is occupied by a gigantic monolith, Gibraltar is also the only overseas territory that still exists within continental Europe. Spain was forced to cede it to the British in the early 18th century to end the War of the Spanish Succession, one of many humiliations the British visited upon their continental rivals over the centuries before the rise of Russia forced the two old enemies together. This quirk left over from an ancient war became strategically important during World War II when Gibraltar became a staging ground for British military operations against the German military despite Spain being sympathetic to Hitler. Spain continues to have aspirations to reclaim the territory but these have been dampened by the overwhelming desire of the natives to remain under British rule. In a 1967 sovereignty referendum, only 44 out of more than 12000 inhabitants voted to rejoin Spain.

We parked our car on the Spanish side of the border to avoid any delays at the border and then walked a mile down the featureless road past the airport towards the end of the peninsula. The sheer limestone face of the eastern side of the Rock loomed ahead of us ominously. Once we were past the border the ocean breeze felt so good that we continued all the way through the town to Europa Point at the southern tip of the peninsula. Here we found the surprising Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, a gift from the King of Saudi Arabia that is one of the largest mosques in a non-Islamic country.
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We doubled back into town towards the cable car base station. As we were painstakingly ascending the road a van stopped alongside us. The driver called over in a British accent and asked if we wanted to join a tour of the Rock. We politely declined, telling him we were on our way to the cable car. He shook his head and told us that the cable car wasn't running due to high winds. We looked at each other dubiously. We were barely feeling a breeze and it seemed like a typical tour operator trick to tell us the cable car was closed. He must have guessed what we were thinking because he immediately said that down here we had no idea how strong the winds were at the top. He quoted us a price that really wasn't too bad so we didn't have much to lose by joining the tour. We were pretty tired of walking anyway.

The van took us first to the viewpoint at the Pillars of Hercules monument followed by the entrance chamber of the St. Michael's Cave complex. These touristy stops hadn't been on our agenda for the day but we took it in stride as part of the overall experience. The real prize was the view from the top of the Rock, where the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the Mediterranean like rippled glass. Shipping vessels slowly pushed through the shadows of the clouds without a visible wake. To the north were the airport and the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, a sight that resembled the view from the window of a landing airplane.
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At the summit we also encountered the Rock's famed population of Barbary apes who came to the van en masse in hopes of being fed. Our guide was a good citizen and followed the directive not to feed the animals, but that didn't stop them from jumping on the roof of the van and positioning themselves very close to us. The animals are actually macaques and not apes, and their origin is uncertain although they lived on the Rock long before the first humans arrived. Decades of close contact with humans has made the monkeys quite bold and one even leaped onto the back of someone else in our group. It was neat to have this unexpected encounter with the wild animal kingdom but we had to be watchful of our babies in this unpredictable environment.
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The van deposited us in the center of Gibraltar's old town which might have passed for any small English town except for the congested pedestrian street filled with brand name boutiques and of course the Rock looming in the background. We ordered lunch at a pub which looked promising but turned out to be horrendous slop that would have embarrassed any self-respecting English publican. If there was more to see in Gibraltar we missed it because we had a three hour drive ahead of us to Granada.
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We couldn't appreciate Granada on the drive in because it was pouring rain. We went straight to our hotel in the center which occupied several upper floors of a high rise and once again I left the family in the car while I checked in. The hotel didn't have any parking and the receptionist showed me on a map of where I could find a subterranean garage. She must have seen the expression on my face as I contemplated hunting for my destination through the narrow old streets in the downpour and offered to have someone park the car for us. That brightened my mood considerably and made me very appreciative of the hotel which was otherwise quite ordinary. She broke out a couple of umbrellas and we hustled everyone inside while the porter drove off with our car.
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By the time we were settled the rain had died down somewhat although there was still a constant drizzle. Between our plastic ponchos, a large trash bag, and an umbrella from the hotel we were able to jury rig enough protection to keep ourselves dry while we explored. We quickly found a pedestrian street lined with crowded little restaurants and enjoyed the best tapas of the trip thus far. The old Muslim quarter of Albayzín was very atmospheric at dusk, somehow somber and energetic at the same moment while shrouded in a light mist. We found a terrace with an excellent view of the majestic Alhambra stretched across the top of its hill.
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On the way back home Cleo's stroller abruptly disintegrated. One of the struts had been bent in Morocco and the metal framework finally gave way on Granada's cobblestones. I was able to tow her stroller backwards until we reached the edge of the modern city where we miraculously found a small department store that was open with a large selection of strollers. They even had a toy one for Cleo to play with. We found one that was somewhat more expensive but definitely superior to the one we'd destroyed with the added benefit of a transparent rain cover.
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Another benefit of the hotel was that they arranged tickets for us for the Alhambra on short notice. We hadn't been aware that reservations sometimes need to be arranged days in advance although I'm not sure if that's typically the case in winter. This sprawling fortified Moorish palace is the best known building in Andalusia and one of the pre-eminent tourist destinations in all of Spain. The Alhambra was converted from a hilltop fort into a Royal Palace in the 14th century, after the reconquest of Andalusia was nearly complete and Granada remained alone as a Muslim state subject to Castile. Once the last Muslims were expelled or forced to convert in the late 15th century, the Alhambra was converted into the Royal Court of the Castilian king with many Renaissance-style alterations to the palace. The enormous complex contains many separate buildings and courtyards in a juxtaposition of different architectural styles. We started our exploration in the Generalife, the main garden of the palace complex. Although it was cloudy and murky it wasn't hard to see the gardens' magnificence. There was an enchanting combination of the elements of vegetation, water, and architecture that made the gardens very enjoyable to explore.
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The palace itself was also very impressive but had a sterile feel that we hadn't experienced at the Alcazar of Sevilla. Perhaps it was because there were more areas which were roped off and inaccessible,but the Alhambra felt more like a museum. We felt that the artwork had been more beautiful and intricate at the Alcazar as well. We spent some time passing through the different sections of the palace and admiring the views of Albayzín below us but we didn't linger much longer than we felt obligated to.
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We spent the afternoon exploring the more modern part of the town center. This was more similar to other major Spanish cities such as Madrid and Valencia with majestic Victorian multistory buildings and colorful townhouses. Despite the rain which never stopped completely for more than a few minutes at a time we were impressed by the energetic vibe of the city and the way that tourism didn't seem to dominate the atmosphere the way that it did in the center of Sevilla.
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The next morning we got an early start because we had to drive all the way back across Andalusia for our second visit to Cádiz of the trip, this time to experience their famous Carnaval.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:13 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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