Monday, July 30, 2012

Nerja on the Costa del Sol

The cliffside town of Nerja, Spain, and Calahonda Beach.

The Costa del Sol is kind of the Ibiza of my parents' generation, I think.  I just remember my young parents and their friends talking a lot about the beaches and nightlife of the Costa del Sol when I was little.  As a result, this gorgeous stretch of Spanish Mediterranean coastline was grossly overdeveloped over the last 30 years and views of the beach now consist mostly of concrete and high-rise apartment blocks.

At least one seaside city remains, however, that somehow managed to avoid construction of excessive property, and that is Nerja.  Nerja (pronounced NAIR-ha) is a historic little whitewashed town with narrow, winding alleyways and a large, tiled main square that evoke feelings of a country village rather than a coastal tourist resort.

Salvador Church in the main square in Nerja.

Extending practically from the main square is another terrific feature of Nerja - a long, beautifully landscaped terrace that stretches out over the Mediterranean and offers views of the town and its beaches.  The terrace is known as the Balcony of Europe and was erected in 1487.

Balcony of Europe in Nerja.

We enjoyed a very long stroll all the way to the end of the terrace, looking forward to having an ice cream cone at one of the many heladerías back near the square as soon as we were finished with our photographs.

There are over 8 miles of nice sand (not shingle!) beaches belonging to Nerja, one of the loveliest being Playa Calahonda on the east side of the Balcony of Europe.

We did not spend the night in Nerja, but when I was contemplating it I strongly considered an apartment recommendation by Shelly Rivoli on her blog Travels with Baby.  It looks like just our kind of place, with a full kitchen, balcony, and two bedrooms.

Nerja, Spain, is a perfect family vacation destination.  I'd love to go again and spend a few days relaxing on the beach, exploring more alleyways, and eating more ice cream!

Strolling through Nerja, Spain.

Friday, July 27, 2012

How Seville Won Our Hearts

Sleeping inside the walls of the Alhambra in Granada was extraordinary.  Dipping churros into warm chocolate at Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid was decadent.  Standing at the southernmost tip of Europe where the Atlantic and Mediterranean meet was exhilarating.  But Seville won our hearts.  By a long shot, Seville was unanimously our favorite stay on this trip.

It had a lot to do with our lovely Spanish-style apartment in the heart of the Barrio de Santa Cruz.  The cozy little neighborhood is the former Jewish quarter of the medieval city and is now the embodiment of  all things Andalusian.  Narrow alleyways twist and turn through whitewashed villas and tiny cafés, and small shady plazas, or squares, appear regularly in between.  One side of the barrio is bordered by the fortified wall of the 12th century Alcázar Palace, another by a large garden, and another opens up to the grand Seville Cathedral.  There is no better way to enjoy Seville than to wander the alleys of Santa Cruz.

Barrio de Santa Cruz is bordered by the Alcázar's walls.

Seville Cathedral

Our two bedroom apartment with air conditioning (a necessity), glass-ceiling eating area, kitchen, and cool Spanish paver flooring was located in an alley no more than three feet wide, steps away from a café where we got to know the waiters by name.  Breakfast was included every morning at a restaurant, around the corner, in the Plaza de Doña Elvira.  The apartment was a relaxing place to come home to every evening after sightseeing all over the city.
Seville's Giralda bell tower

The Seville Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and the third largest church in the world.  (Guess which two are bigger?  Answer at the end of this post.)  I love how the cathedral sits in the middle of a very large square with no vendors, restaurants, or shops butting up against it so you can view its full magnificence all at once.  We climbed to the top of the Giralda bell tower and could see across the entire red-tile-roofed city of Seville.

The Alcázar Palace literally took our breath away.  Yes, it was our first full immersion into Moorish splendor so we were impressed, but even now when I compare images of the Alhambra in Granada and Pena Palace in Sintra, which we also visited, the Seville Alcázar is like whip cream on top of the others, so delicate and lovely.  The Alcázar gardens rival any other palace gardens I've seen in Europe, with the exception of Versailles.  I wish we had days to spend there.

Alcázar Palace

Alcázar gardens

We happened on the Plaza de España at the golden hour, and it was bathed in warm yellow light and empty of people, except a few evening strollers and a bride being photographed.  I instantly fell in love with the Renaissance buildings, the romantic curved bridges, the gorgeous little alcoves representing the different provinces of Spain, and the intricate tile work everywhere.  I'm usually more partial to old(er) landmarks, but this plaza, built only in 1924 as a World's Fair building, left a staggering impression on me.

Plaza de España, above and below.

We attended a flamenco show in Seville which tops my daughter's list of favorite memories.  A dancer herself, she was mesmerized, as were we, by the emotional intensity and energy of the dancers.  The show was fabulous - even my son enjoyed the performance.

Seville is a metropolis, and around the train station and outer limits we noticed some graffiti and grit, but most of the area in the center of the city is as charming and embracing as any of my favorite European medieval towns.  Our stay in Seville was the highlight of our trip.

Fast Facts About Seville:

•  There are no grocery stores or even mini-markets anywhere in the Barrio de Santa Cruz nor even nearby.  Plan your grocery shopping ahead of time.  The nearest market is near the river and Plaza de Jerez.

•  Free WCs can be found in Starbucks or other restaurants and cafés.

•  Some websites show the Alcázar Palace closed on Mondays.  It is open on Mondays in the summer.

Answer:  St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil are bigger than the Seville Cathedral.

This post is part of Photo Friday at

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

My General Observations on Spain and Portugal

Córdoba, Spain

Southern Spain and Portugal are dream destinations.  Centuries old traditions; breathtaking beaches; inexpensive eats; Gothic, Renaissance, Manueline, and Moorish architecture, sometimes all in one palace or church; scrumptious pastries; and warm, friendly people await travelers in both countries.

Our family of four has been home from our three week trip about a week now and I'm still sorting through the 6,188 photos we took with our four cameras.  (Oh, and there's lots of video, too.)  Without the restrictions of the cost of film and developing, nowadays we're almost tortured by TMI.  Too many images.  Which one of the 203 photos we took of the Alhambra will I send to my family? put in the photo album? post on my blog?  It's mind-numbing.  But as my daughter so sweetly said, "It's the picture in your memory that's most important."

Lagos, Portugal
My husband and I had been to northern Spain before but never to the south, nor to Portugal.  This was the first family trip to Europe without previous travel to any part of the destination (except the 2-night stay in Madrid).  When the kids were younger, the trips to Europe were more focused on getting them adjusted, showing them places we've been and things we've seen, and meeting the many relatives.  The unfamiliar destinations on this trip ensured it would be an adventure for everyone.  We got lost together, stumbled through the language barrier together, and gasped in awe together at new sights.

I made some general observations about Spain and Portugal while there.  Thought I might pass them along:

•  Taxis are cheap.  Most of the time cheaper than the bus or metro fare for four.

•  Spaniards love ham.  Smoked ham, baked ham, fried ham, any kind of ham.  Ham bocadillos (sandwiches) are just about the cheapest meal you'll find anywhere in Europe.  Made me wonder where all the pig farms are, since we never encountered one.

•  Food and alcohol is relatively inexpensive.  A beer at a restaurant is only 2€ and a tall glass of sangria (yum!) only 3.50€.

•  Not "everyone speaks English" as is so commonly proclaimed by Americans.  In Holland or Belgium, yes, everyone speaks English, but not in Andalusia or the Algarve.  In my opinion, this adds charm to a place.

•  The countryside in these regions of Spain and Portugal reminds me of the drive up Interstate 5 through California's Central Valley.  Dry, brown, and hilly.  Only California doesn't have even the occasional castle or white hill town along the way.

•  Much to my mother's relief, we saw no evidence of restless, unemployed youth gangs, even in the big cities.

•  We were not financially inconvenienced by any PIIGS crisis.

•  Be prepared for the occasional power outage.  This has absolutely nothing to do with any PIIGS crisis, but with the fact that Spain and Portugal are southern European countries.

•  I was disappointed by the lack of fresh fruit in Spain.  Corner fruit stands are rare and the local supermarkets have only sad, old fruit.  Maybe we just never found the right market square.  Portugal was better.

•  Like most old cities in Europe, the cobblestones are severe, and make pushing a baby stroller difficult.  The steep hills in Spain's white hill towns as well as in Lisbon make pushing a baby stroller practically impossible.

•  The Spanish and the Portuguese are tremendously friendly.  Shopkeepers, tour guides, restaurant servers, locals on the street - all were kind and helpful.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Photo Friday: An Unforgettable Moment

Fado singer serenades my daughter in Lisbon.

We arrived home safe and sound a few days ago from our three-week trip to Spain and Portugal.  Our journey was blessed with good fortune, our experiences were breathtaking and memorable, and our family time together was priceless.  We rarely see my high-school-aged daughter during the school year when she's either at a school activity or holed up in her bedroom studying, so these three weeks with her were precious.  My 13 year old son relaxed his adolescent impertinence once away from his friends and environment and transformed into his sweet, enjoyable self.  There were moments when the two of them walked together arm-in-arm or giggled at a private joke that brought tears to my eyes.  It's the reason I love family travel.  And the reason I love this photo of a fado singer serenading my daughter last week at a restaurant in Lisbon.

Join other travel bloggers at for Photo Friday.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Beach Grotto in Lagos

One of the highlights of our trip so far - a boat ride through the gorgeous beach grottos of Lagos in Portugal.

This post is part of Photo Friday at

Thursday, July 5, 2012

So Far So Good

Everything has been going fabulously for us so far on this trip.  I'm always anxious to see my travel plans, itineraries, reservations, and daydreams materialize (or not) once we're finally on our journey.  Accommodations are, of course, always a matter of great apprehension - will they look as nice as their website photos?  Are the negative comments on Trip Advisor really true or just the diatribe of a disgruntled traveler?  Will the location be convenient?  I am thrilled to say that we are currently in lodging number three here in Spain and have been overjoyed with each and every one of them.

In Seville

In Madrid we spent two nights at Hostel Ivor - our first time in a hostel as a family - and it was perfect.  As I've mentioned before, hostels are not the shabby, drunk-backpackers' havens they used to be.  Our room for 4 had A/C and an in-room bathroom with shower.  The location on a quiet pedestrian street was a block from the Puerta del Sol.  Our Spanish-style apartment in the heart of the Seville barrio was dreamy - we didn't want to leave.  And now, at Hotel America, one of only two hotels inside the grounds of the Alhambra in Granada, it is a scenic paradise.


Trains have been timely, taxis plentiful, monuments have been open, food (and sangria!) has been terrific, and the Spaniards are so kind and helpful.  Having a great time - wish you were here.

Monday, July 2, 2012

¡Hola from Madrid!

Plaza Mayor

Royal Palace in Madrid
Haven't had much access to wifi, but we had a great time in Madrid and are now in Seville!  Adios!
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