Travels with Peter Wu
The year 2018 would always be special. It was my first full year of retirement. My focus in life shifted from work to travel and we did it with gusto. We did our homework, making sure there were no lapses in our daily accommodations, travel arrangements and activities.
After exploring Italy, the Iberia Peninsula was next. I wrote about Portugal in Part 1. Here’s Part 2 on Spain.
The bus ride to Seville from Faro Airport in Portugal was comfortable and sweet. The few stops en route allowed us to see the small townships on both sides of the border.
We arrived in Seville under the noon-day sun. We could feel the temperature rising fast even as we went from bus terminal to taxi stand. By the time we got to our first stop, Plaza Mayor, the heat was simply suffocating.
In an instant, the custom of taking a siesta made sense. We did just that, staying indoor for the rest of the afternoon to reschedule our itinerary to avoid a potential heat stroke. There are no tours in the afternoon because of the stifling heat; the evening comes as a blessing for visitors.
With more tourists planning their travels online through sites such as TripAdvisor, the relatively new concept of the “free” walking city tour has become extremely popular. All we did was to go online and type in the key words “free walking tour.” We registered for the city tour we were interested in and then just showed up at the designated time and place. That’s it.
Tours posted on TripAdvisor generally provide private tour guides for groups of around 20 tourists. Even though it’s called “free” walking tours, the guides work for gratuities – usually 5 to 10 euros per head. A tour guide can earn a decent incoming doing two tours per day, five days a week. Tip them well and you can ask them about their favourite local restaurants. The quality of their service is undoubtedly far superior to the traditional tour guides who are prepaid.
Seville was where we tried out a walking tour and we loved it. I would use this service any time when I want to know about a city, other than visiting tourist attractions that require an admission fee.
Our “Heart of Sevilla” tour guide majored in history and was perfect for the job. From him, we learned not only the history of the city but also got a glimpse of how the younger Spaniards view themselves in the past and present.
Predictably, our guide bragged about Columbus’ discovery and Magellan’s circumnavigation, the Spaniards’ Golden Age when the sun never set for them. He emphasized that Spain ruled the New World for 400 years. No wonder Spanish is the second most-spoken language in the world.
It seems, however, that the New World has been forgotten by most Spaniards nowadays. There has been little mention of the conquistadors and very limited contact with South American countries since the Spanish withdrawal, even though they share a common language.
All goods from the Americas came through Seville. The Torre del Oro, on the far right of the photo above, is the tariff-collection tower. Either pay up or have your boat sunk by officers who would lower a large chain strung across the canal.
For us, Madrid was supposed to be a mere convenient stop before Barcelona. My expectation to be wowed was low but I was misguided once again.
As the third-largest city in the EU, Madrid predictably has its share of traffic jams at Gran Via, the city centre. Elsewhere, however, the Spanish capital is impressive with wide boulevards and a good mix of old and new buildings.
Even though it was hot in June, our walks through the city was quite pleasant in the relatively low humidity. We found charm and beauty in Madrid, as we did in all other places we visited on this trip. The common thread is its people.
The first thing that brought Barcelona into my world was the 1992 Olympics. Then there is Lionel Messi, the legendary football star. The renowned Basilica of the Sagrada Familia is also in Barcelona, making it a “must” stop on our tour.
On the negative side, we knew Barcelona was notorious for its pickpockets. Tourists pack police stations everyday just to file a report, with little hope of recovering anything.
We witnessed one incident on a crowded bus going to the beach. Suddenly, we noticed a middle-aged man squeezing through the aisle and saying something sternly. Seconds later, I heard a plop and saw a wallet on the floor next to where I was sitting. The man came over to pick up the wallet, putting it in his pocket without even checking the content. No one turned their head. It was over as if it had never happened.
Doing a little CSI, I suppose the victim must have said something like: “Whoever took my wallet: give it back to me and no question asked. Or else I’ll have the driver keep the door locked and body-search everyone.” Simple and effective, I think.
From our research, it seems Barcelona might as well be called “Gaudilona.”
Barcelona was already a modern city with great city planning and sophisticated people when the architect Antoni Gaudi came along in the late 19th century. Gaudi had put his mark on so much of the city that it would take days for a tourist to appreciate all his masterpieces.
All of Gaudi’s landmark projects require visitors to make advance bookings. This made our timetable in Barcelona very rigid, as the booking time slots had to be followed strictly. Other sightseeing plans got second priority but the tight time management was well worth the effort. We saw how Gaudi had almost singlehandedly shaped the city.
Barcelona is the second-largest city in Spain and capital of the Catalonian region. It has a reputation of being an open and welcoming city. We liked the people we met.
The husband and wife in our B & B host family both worked at the local TV station. For extra income to raise their four lovely children, they used the upper level of their apartment to host visitors. Their fifteen-year-old daughter came up to introduce herself and welcome us as their guests. A teenager with discipline and respect in this me generation is a rare breed.
The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia needs no introduction. Most are familiar with the distinctive external features of Gaudi’s masterful design. Construction began in 1882 and, surprisingly to many, is still in progress today. I’m sure those hoping to see it after the long-anticipated completion in 2026 won’t be disappointed.
The interior of the Basilica has not been covered as much. To get in, you need to make early online bookings weeks before you get on a plane. All your troubles, though, every minute and every euro spent is well worth it.
The dedication to Antoni Gaudi for his contribution pretty much sums up what you’ll experience:
“On this site, Gaudi wished to unite the inspiration he drew from three great books that nourished him as a man, a believer and an architect: the book of nature, the book of Holy Scripture, and the book of Liturgy. Thus, he united the reality of the world and the history of salvation, as told in the Bible and updated in the Liturgy.”
Twenty years after Gaudi took over the design of the Basilica, another architect genius Lluis Domenech I Montaner directed the design of Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul. On the city map, the hospital and the basilica lay out an axis running from north to south, for the new Barcelona. The city blocks in between have been widened to make that link apparent.
Even with all those must-see attractions, we did manage to have time to explore the streets of Barcelona.
Our last dinner in Barcelona was at Tickets Bar, a Michelin-starred tapa joint recommended by a friend. We had to book three months in advance.
The experience was, well, hard to describe. One thing for sure: we came out not feeling stuffed.
The slice of raw fish firmly stuck to the glass platter. After we had finished, I realized the special fork was not for spearing the meat but to lift the sashimi from one side and roll it up. Then you’d pick it up gently towards your mouth. We needed a user’s manual.
On the train to the airport, we felt like the little girl and her dad in the picture — absolutely exhausted.
Our Iberia trip was over in the blink of an eye. At that moment, the places we visited earlier in Portugal were like scenes from a distant past.
It would be an understatement to describe our trip as an eye-opener. our cameras captured only a fraction of what we saw. Nonetheless, these were precious moments we love to share.
Editor’s note: Iberian Impressions Part 2 first appeared on this blog in the autumn of 2019.