A Sensational Sojourn to the Iberian Peninsula with
Insight Vacations (Part Two)
(To read Part One of this Iberian Journey story, click here.)
Pictures Courtesy of Renegade Photography
Next stop is the post-card-perfect, mountain village of Monsaraz, a medieval town that looks as if it were created as a tourist attraction of a medieval town, so perfect are the architecture and ambience of the place. However, this hamlet is for real. The streets are cobbled in ancient, well-worn stones; the homes are whitewashed to snowy perfection; the crumbling, old castle/fortress looks like it was sent over from central casting; and peeking through the alleyways and narrow lanes of Monsaraz's olden homes are glimpses of Europe's largest manmade lake, Grande Lago do Alqueva, created in 2010, when the Guadina River was dammed. It's a nearly 100-square-mile body of water (sharing a border with Spain). The minuscule shops around the village offer unusual hand-crafted items; I am still ruing that I did not buy a sweet, wooden sewing box, but all I could think of was the practical roadblock, "How will I get this into my luggage," and so left it there. But, now, I have yet another reason to return.
We get to actually experience the charm of the placid lake when we take a sailboat ride with Tiago Kalisvaart, a transplanted Dutchman, who owns an enchanting restaurant, the Sem-Fim, and a restored sailboat of the same name, which he brought there from Holland. The restaurant is housed in a converted olive-oil plant (large presses still punctuate the floor) and also features an attention-grabbing art gallery. We dined like well-fed royalty—and I should add that this is another type of "signature" experience that Insight arranges. Kalisvaart also does nighttime sails which are billed as dark-sky tours—or simply star-gazing. He tells us that this area has one of the darkest skies in Europe, so removed from "civilization" is it, and I suspect that you can actually count all the glowing embers of the Milky Way.
We arrived in the charming medieval town of Évora, and settled into the modern M’Ar de Ar Aqueduto Hotel, with a strikingly modern interior, set against the scenery of the nearly 2,000-year-old town, surrounded by a stone aqueduct, the Aqueduto da Água de Prata. This enclosed city is yet another quaint village, with more cobbled streets, narrow, twisty alleys, porticoed walkways, and ringed by ancient wall. These days, the guide told us, there are some 8,000 students attending the local university, so against this backdrop of history are staccato sightings of young people with pink hair, tattoos, and multiple earrings in unexpected places. There is history everywhere here, including a temple built for Diana, with its Roman ruins in the center of town.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Évora yields many surprises, the most shocking of which is the singular Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) located within the Igreja de Sao Francisco (Saint Francis Church). The church is under restoration at the moment, but the chapel is accessible and you will find in this sanctuary, a near-appalling sight: The walls and ceiling are entirely covered in skeletal remains (our guide said over 5,000 bodies!), which had been removed from a few dozen cemeteries in the environs hundreds of years ago.
The next day, we take a lovely day trip (perhaps an hour outside town, and into Spain) to Corteconcepción, to the family-owned and -operated Jamones Éirez pig farm, in operation since 1818. The ample-bellied pigs roam freely, scarfing up acorns that their shepherd, Manolo Éirez, shakes from the massive oak trees with a long stick; he explained that there are several types of oaks and their acorns taste slightly different, so he coaxes his animals to eat a mixtures of the sweet and tart, resulting in a ham product that is a perfect blend. The resulting Jamon de Bellota is very pricey and a trip to the famous market, Fairway, near my home in Gotham, underscores this: It is priced from $100 to $200 a pound! It is worth noting, that the U.S. has allowed this import only since 2009.
Our last stop on this perfect journey is Seville, and from our city HQ, we venture to Córdoba, which I had known was striking, but had not expected to be so jaw-dropping remarkable. The city has been home to Moslems, Christians, and Jews for centuries and one sees vestiges of this intermingling in the town. Across the street from the entrance to the ancient city center (the historic part of the city is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site), you can see the remnants of a Roman bridge, dating to 1 AD, and an ancient water-wheel is also fairly well preserved.
However, it is the Mosque-Cathedral (or as the church is known today, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption), that will simply take your breath away. Over 1200 years old, it is some 500 years senior to the renowned Alhambra in Grenada. Several hundred years after the Christians once again established themselves here, they built a church inside the more ancient mezquita or mosque. There is still a minaret inside the church tower; the architecture—with touches of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and what-have-you—in general is a mélange of Moorish archways (over 800 of them) and vaulted pristine-white ceilings; gold leaf, intricate mosaics, and ceramic tiles; patterned, rectilinear blocks and straight lines alongside graceful curves and amorphous, amoebic-like arcs.
There are over 850 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite that are flamboyantly majestic; it is truly a sight to behold. Along the roof are four acres of an ancient aqueduct. It is almost too overwhelming to take in. Dazed by the splendor of it all, I meandered around the ancient district and followed pathways to the old Jewish quarter of town; after all, this is where the larger-then-life Jewish scholar-physician-philosopher- astronomer-rabbi Maimonides was born. I even find a lovely monument to him.
The last day in Seville we head to the largest cathedral in the world, surpassing the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, comprised of two churches, the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida and St Peter's Basilica.
It is yet another stunning, architecturally interesting monument, constructed with interesting stone and intricate design. On my own, I sought out the balcony where Rosina stood in Rossini's Barber of Seville, the building that was allegedly the cigarette factory where Carmen worked (in Carmen, of course), and the many sites around town where the action in Don Giovanni occurred, including (I hope) the "actual" site of the cemetery where the statue of the murdered Commendatore stands, the very statue that comes to life, to haunt and taunt Don Giovanni. It is an opera-lover's paradise! A little snacky-time was in order after all that touring around with our group and we chowed down on warm churros, a fried-dough-type pastry, formed into long, golden-brown-encrusted squiggles, then smothered in powdered sugar or chocolate and returned to our hotel, the trendy Meliá Sevilla, to rest up for an evening's activities. The evening's program includes a horse-and-carriage ride around picturesque and majestic Seville, which I might add, in addition to being a lushly verdant metropolis, is also a deliciously fragrant one.
There are more than 30,000 orange trees gracing the municipality and her parks, public commons, gardens, and boulevards.
To cap off our entire trip, we bookended another musical evening for the last night of our oh-so-pleasant journey, mirroring the commencement. We celebrated at the highly regarded El Patio Sevillano, a 300-seat bar-theater, highly regarded in Andalusia for its flamenco. Flamenco is to the lifeblood of Spain what the waltz is to Vienna. The melodies themselves are more or less a folk music, peppered with rich guitar, pulsating castanets and clapping, syncopating rhythms, and vocals with an imperative attitude.
It was an outstanding presentation and one that only served to underscore what a grand job Insight has done to structure a trip with so many unusual ("signature" is certainly fitting) experiences in two countries that offer so much. I would assuredly return to these two warm and welcoming nations—and I'd convey it with fado, changing the word eyes to soul, and paraphrasing another well-known, tortured fado favorite, expressing my eagerness to return to Iberia: "I want to be a prisoner in the jail of your soul."
All the Details:
For information on an Iberian holiday with Insight Vacations, and for a complete listing of the company's 113 different sojourns, call 1-888-680-1241 or click here. The company offers seven different styles of touring from Country Roads Tours to Regional Tours. Insight Vacations has journeys in well over three dozen countries in Europe; the starting price per person, double-occupancy, for a typical 10-day journey (a Premium Escorted Journey-level tour) is $2,225. A typical 11-day tour with the top-level package (called Gold Luxury Tours), starts at $4,125 per person, double-occupancy. These two top-tier levels of touring offer luxury service/lodgings/meals, well above the average tour-company's offerings and provide upscale hotels, fine dining venues, and the company's "signature" events, which are interesting, local experiences that most tourists do not get to sample on other, typical group tours. Signature experiences are designed to give a hands-on familiarity and understanding of a region, so that an Insight guest is an active participant in a country's culture, not merely an observer. Additionally, Insight offers an early-payment fee reduction and a discounted plan for solo travelers.