Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Do You Need Train Reservations?

I love the ol' hop-on hop-off days of train travel with a Eurail Pass in Europe.  Those were the days when you really only had to make a reservation on a train if you wanted a sleeper couchette.  Hop-on hop-off still exists in many European countries, but some, such as Switzerland and Spain, insist on seat reservations on all but small, regional trains.  It takes some of the spontaneity out of train travel.

What surprised me when traveling in Switzerland last winter was that seat reservations were not as necessary as I was led to believe.  We were traveling with a Swiss Pass and I had only booked seats on our two major travel days from Zurich to Adelboden and back again.  (And the cutest thing was that our Rail Europe travel agent had booked our group of 11 a whole car by having this paper sign taped to the windows!)  We took other long train rides (Frutigen to Gruyères, for example) and just simply boarded without reservations, no problem.

On a 2nd class train car in Switzerland.

In Spain this summer we didn't have rail passes so naturally got a seat assignment when we purchased our tickets, but it didn't seem to matter where we sat on the regional trains (Seville to Córdoba, for example).  In Portugal we took a few train rides out of Lisbon and didn't need seat reservations.

Certainly all high-speed trains such as TGV, ICE, Eurostar, Thalyes, AVE and others require seat reservations.  Even if you have a rail pass be sure to purchase (there's a surcharge) a seat reservation before boarding.

Another thing that's changed from "the old days" of European train travel is that there's not much difference between 1st and 2nd class cars anymore now that most seating is "bus style" as opposed to train compartments.  Sure, the seats are a little wider in 1st class, and we were shocked to be served a complimentary box of sushi, of all things, on a 1st class ride from Paris to Cologne.

And sometimes you just get lucky:  when my Girl Scout troop and I were headed to the Zurich airport for our flight home, one of our connecting trains was delayed.  A very kind Swiss train attendant knew we were nervous about catching our plane, personally led us to another train, and seated us in 1st class for the rest of our journey.  The girls felt very special!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Alhambra Part 2: Palace Nazare

In my Alhambra Part 1 post I shared the beauty and magnificence of Generalife Gardens, one of four sites to visit in the ancient fortress of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  But the crown jewel of the complex is the Palace Nazare, also known as the Nasrid Palace, as it represents perhaps the finest Islamic architecture in all of Europe.

The Nasrids were the last remaining Muslim dynasty on the Iberian Peninsula and were responsible for the construction of the Palace Nazare, although many reconstructions and alterations were made over time by later Spanish royalty.  In fact, the Royal Palace is actually a number of palaces built together, each with differently decorated and designed rooms and courtyards that were used by the Muslim rulers for various purposes.

Be sure to rent audioguides or take a guided tour so that you can learn and fully appreciate the delicate stonework, frescoes, tilework, exquisite art, and history of the grandest and most visited site in Spain.  It is a truly fascinating cultural experience.

The first series of rooms you will enter in the Royal Palace is the Mexuar where the Sultan met with his ministers and the public.  There are lovely views of the city below from here.

Next is the Mudéjar style Golden Room, with its beautiful three-arched portico, where the 14th century Sultan made his important military decisions and the officials and secretaries of the Muslim court took their orders.

At the entrance to the Golden Room.

Opposite the Golden Room is the entrance to the Serallo and its various rooms and courtyards.  The Serallo was the official residence of the Sultan and its rooms surround the Patio of the Myrtles with its large reflecting pool.

The Patio of the Myrtles, facing south.
The Patio of the Myrtles, facing north, to the Comares Tower.

The majestic façade of Comares, opposite the Golden Room.
Notice the woodwork in the eaves.

At the north end of the Patio of the Myrtles, inside the Comares Tower, lies the luxuriously decorated Chamber of the Ambassadors, also known as the Throne Room, the largest room in the Nasrid Palace.  The walls of this room are completely covered with artwork of tile, geometric plasterwork, and inscriptions, and the ceiling is a stunning wooden dome symbolizing the seven heavens.

Chamber of the Ambassadors.

No water in the fountain when we visited -
under renovation.
My favorite part of the Royal Palace is the Court of the Lions, named after its central fountain with twelve lions, built during the 14th century reign of Muhammad V.  The fountain and courtyard are surrounded by an exquisite arched gallery supported by 124 marble columns of the finest Moorish artistic style.  The Sultan's harem was housed in the rooms around this courtyard.

You will exit the Royal Palace through the Court of the Lindaraja but there is still so much to see.

The Court of the Lindaraja.

After walking outside a landscaped path you come to the Partal Palace and its gardens.  The palace's portico, pavilion, five arches, and tower are the oldest (1302 - 1309) structure of the Alhambra.

Partal Palace and its reflecting pool.

St. Mary's Church of the Alhambra lies along the same path (which used to be the Royal Road to and from the Nasrid Palace) and was built in the 17th century on the site of the Alhambra's Great Mosque.  Visit inside to view the outstanding Baroque altarpiece and several Spanish works of art.  Then easily spend another leisurely hour strolling the stunning grounds.

This post is my Friday link-up to Photo Friday at

Read Alhambra Part 1:  Generalife Gardens here.
Read Alhambra Part 3:  Palace of Charles V here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Want Ice With That?

Have you ever asked for a glass of ice water in Europe?  'Cause this is what you'll get - if you're lucky. One ice cube floating in a glass.  Another time the waiter once brought us one small ice cube on a dish to add to our drink.  A large cup of crushed ice is unfortunately still foreign, even in the warm Mediterranean climates.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Photo Friday: From All Over the World

This is a bulletin board at Our Chalet, one of the four international program centers for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, located in Adelboden, Switzerland.  Guests are invited to post something, usually a patch or neckerchief, from their home country or local Girl Scout troop.  Loved seeing so many countries represented there.

This is my Photo Friday link-up post to

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Convent Cookies

This idea excited mostly me, probably because no one else in my family grew up being taught by nuns, but how I loved searching out the little convents in Spain where cloistered sisters sell fresh-baked goodies from behind little blind cupboards!  My grade-school life was filled with the secret mysteries of nuns - what did they wear under their habits?  what would she (my 1st grade teacher, Sr. Irmine) look like without her wimple?  what did they eat? - so this charming opportunity to catch a glimpse of a cloistered nun was just too intriguing for me.  Rick Steves says if you stand just so at the cupboard window, blocking out the light, you might be able to see the sister, but that didn't really work for us.  Our experiences were interesting and fun though.  First we visited Convento de Corpus Christi in Madrid (quite easy to find as it is in central Madrid).

El Convento de Corpus Christi in Madrid.

There is a doorbell to the left of the giant studded door which you ring and tell them you'd like to buy sweets and they will buzz the door open for you.  Then you enter a small room where there is a menu of baked goodies and a price list next to a framed opening with a lazy Susan in the center.

A nun's voice will shout something from behind the wall in Spanish, which we didn't understand, but was probably along the lines of, "What would you like?"  When we didn't answer, she spun the lazy Susan which magically disappeared around the back and reappeared with a variety of cookies, biscuits, and confections to choose from.  We selected a box, checked the price on the price list, and placed the money on the lazy Susan, which she then spun around again, all without us ever catching a glimpse of her.

I thought the whole transaction was precious and felt like we were supporting a truly good cause.  Selling their baked goods is a valuable source of income for these nuns to support their existence as well as their 17th century convent.  Convento de Corpus Christi is open from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 4:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.  Some of their recipes have been preserved over the ages from the Moors and include almond biscuits, caramel topped sugar cookies, Sherry mantecados, and orange flavored sweets.  Prices for a dozen run about 7€ - 9€.

In Seville we went to check out another convent, Convent Tienda El Torno, but were disappointed that it wasn't a convent at all - or not that we could tell - because the address was a shop, staffed by a young woman, who sold pastries over the counter.  I was not impressed and so we left, but there are apparently several other dessert-selling convents in Seville that may be more fun to purchase from.

We ventured the experience again in Arcos de la Frontera, Spain, at the Convent of the Mercedarian Nuns, the last remaining convent in Arcos.

I am truly fascinated by the lives these nuns lead, cloistered in this old building, avoiding any direct contact with the public.  Notice the window grills high up on the windows and the peepholes for the sisters to see through.

Again, you enter the lobby and approach the blind cupboard where the cookies appear after a greeting from a faceless voice.  You make your choice, leave your money, and if you're getting change it will spin around again.  An absolutely charming transaction that I'm afraid is a dying art with fewer and fewer nuns in the world.

Our powdered sugar nutty confections were delicious.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Photo Friday: Louvre in Summer

Just remembering a beautiful summer day at the Louvre.

This is my Photo Friday link-up post to
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