Saturday, June 20, 2009


Tuesday, June 22, 2004 Fatima, Portugal

We were in for another history lesson this morning as we headed north from Lisbon. This time we learned about Portugal. In 1974 there was a military “coup d ta” and they became a democracy from a dictatorship. They have slowly been building since that time. Not as wealthy as Spain they were also hindered by more than one million refugees from the African colonies. It’s been a struggle mainly due to less resources but each year is an improvement. The European Union has been very good for Portugal. As a small country, about the size of California, it’s always been important to have alliances with other countries.

We’re driving past rice fields; but they still import Uncle Ben’s to have enough. Whoops…their goes another cell phone ringing. These Australians all seem to have their cell phones with them and they are constantly getting calls from home. Not sure just what their service is but it’s the same that they use in Australia. They said it also works in the USA. They do have a “sim chip” like I have in my phone. My Spain chip doesn’t work here in Portugal…but there is a message in my phone that I think would tell me how to make it work but it’s in Spanish….oh well…I will wait until we get back into Spain today!

Have I told you about Sister Eleanor? She is eighty years young, lives in Sidney Australia. She teaches voice (music) at the University and also has a studio in downtown Sidney where she teaches privately. What a kick! Does everything and gets to church almost daily. Her students got together and gave her this trip as a gift. She was on a thirty-one day tour with Trafalgar in Germany, France, etc before this one in Spain. From here she flies to Chicago and has a third tour of the Canadian Rocky Mountains before she returns home to Sidney. We had a twenty-minute stop on the road yesterday due to road repairs and she stood in the aisle of the bus with the younger women and led the group in singing! She’s always in her habit complete with veil…white short dress with black coat. Speaks her mind but has been a real jewel on the trip.

Back to our story, we were on the bus before 8 am this morning and we arrived in Fatima about 11 am. They gave us time for shopping for gifts and then an hour to visit the Shrine and large Basilica that was very impressive. They have just started building another church…probably will be finished about the Century Anniversary in 2017. There was a woman there who walked on her knees carrying her baby. She did have kneepads on but it was still painful I’m sure. Our guide said that people do this when prayers have been answered or they have a special request; the church frowns on the practice but it is done all the time he said. It is not as big as the Lourdes Shrine, but still huge for a religious site. The standing area for ceremonies is as big as St. Peter’s at the Vatican.

Back on the bus…this is the longest bus day of the tour; we didn’t arrive at Salamanca (back in Spain) until after 6 pm. They kept us entertained with pointing out the storks that nest on top of the church steeples and even more surprisingly on the top of many of the power poles. Salamanca is a University Town and very old. Everyone would have loved to spend a couple of days; but it is an overnight stop. Dinner tonight was in the hotel. A great meal! Afterwards we headed for an Internet Shop for a quick look at emails, as we’re not able to sign on in the hotel room. We were reminded of the trade off for being right in town….very noisy night….lots of college students…they were playing soccer with a can at 4 am below our window. We are just steps away from the main square; but we did get a fairly good nights’ sleep and we start late tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 23rd: On the Road to Madrid

Left Salamanca at 9 am on our way back to Madrid. Weather is overcast but clouds were gone by noon. On the road through the mountains; we had a one-mile long tunnel. Saw the skiing area for Madrid. Drove around Availa; has beautifully preserved walls completely surrounding the old city…over a thousand years old. This was the home of St. Theresa of Avila. By the way…we were told that gasoline in Spain is $4.00 per gallon and that’s the biggest reason that you only see small cars. Also, no olive trees in this area; they grow wheat, sunflowers, cattle and horses. They have snow in the winter months. We arrived in Madrid about noon and found a great Greek Cafeteria near the hotel for lunch. Cafeterias are not like at home; they are a combined bar, cafĂ© and restaurant. Good places to grab light meals.

After lunch we walked three miles to the Archeology Museum that was started in the eighteenth century. Afterwards we walked the three miles back to the hotel so we should have a great night’s sleep; especially since we’re on the fifth floor of a relatively new hotel. Tonight we dined by ourselves at the little Greek Cafeteria next to the hotel. We already knew we’ll get an early and great meal at minimal expense! Plus we’ll be able to watch the two soccer games on T.V. tonight.

Thursday, June 24th: Madrid City Tour, Valley of the Fallen & El Escorial

Up early and on the bus by 8:30 am. Looks like another great day weather wise. However, morning traffic in Madrid is a different story. We inched our way towards the old city for a driving tour of the various sites. So nice that we arrived early and had seen the sites before our tour because most of them were a rolling look see for the tour. Since today is St. John’s feast day, King Juan Carlos’ patron saint; the palace has been closed for two days as he is using it for ceremonies to celebrate the occasion. The Mayor’s Plaza was a “look to your right and that archway leads to”, only one of the most important Plaza in Madrid. The Cathedral was a “to your right is” as we cruised past.

The streets are lined with banners proclaiming that the Olympic Torch will pass through Madrid on June 27th on its way to Greece. They are busying cleaning buildings and fountains that will be on the path of the run through Madrid. Glad we will be gone by then. Couple of interesting notes: The bear eating the berries that is the symbol of Madrid…the berries have a high alcohol level and that’s why the bears liked them so well. Also, remember the Plaza del Sol where we spent our first several days. I mentioned that they celebrate New Years Eve here like Time Square in New York. Today we learned that the tradition is to eat twelve grapes, representing the twelve months of the year, one for each stroke of the bell at midnight. This is to bring good luck for the coming year. If you can’t be in Plaza del Sol to do this…you eat your twelve grapes while watching the scene on television.

After two hours of cruising we arrived at our first stop at the Prado Museum. Yes, we’d spent several hours there but hearing the guide give us her stories about the various painters was an interesting hour. In fairness to the Tour, everyone had yesterday afternoon and this evening to go to various sights on their own. Some had elected to forgo the afternoon optional tour and stay in town to see more of Madrid.

We had signed up for the afternoon tour so after dropping about half of the tour at the hotel we were off to visit the El Escorial and El Valle De Los Caidos, The Valley of the Fallen. Both are located about an hour north of Madrid in the mountains.

We went to the Valley of the Fallen first. This was the war memorial for the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Conceived and planned by Franco to honor the victims of the Civil War. A massive cross stand 150 meters (about 490 feet) tall on the top of a mountain in the forest above the Memorial. The mountain was hollowed out (the rock they removed was used to build the cross) and a Basilica is built inside the mountain under the cross. The Basilica is actually longer than St. Peter’s at 870 feet. It took twenty years to build this memorial. When it was finished they moved the remains of over fifty thousand people here who died in the war. Franco was buried here when he died in 1975. There is also a convent and school built on the backside of the mountain that we didn’t see.

After having lunch nearby we boarded the bus for the six mile trip over to the El Escorial. A Monastery, school, , another Basilica, and a summer palace for royalty. This is also the burial site for the Spanish Royals. There is a town by the same name. This area is only about fortyfive miles outside of Madrid but the temperature drop makes it the favorite summer home for many of the wealthy class in Madrid. The University even holds summer classes in El Escorial. The site was originally built by King Phillip II as a burial place for his parents, then the Monastery was built for the monks to take care of him in his old age. Big problem coming up is that there are only three remaining spaces for bodies! This was the place that they first used the very wide and short steps in the main stairway. They became the standard in palaces thereafter (per the tour guide). It took us nearly two hours to view the various areas and hear the history. Many beautiful paintings by famous painters grace the walls and ceilings of El Escorial. The Basilica is so beautiful that you must apply at least a year in advance to have your wedding here. There are four of the original eight pipe organs still working in the church. The Royals come here only to be buried and do not celebrate their weddings here.

Back on the bus after a stop to shop for mementos in the gift shop; nearly everyone had a siesta on the trip back to Madrid. Jim has developed a cold; there has been lots of sneezing and nose blowing on the bus for several days; so it was not a surprise. We arrived back at the hotel before 6:30 pm just in time for a light dinner and more soccer games on television. Tonight is the semi-final game between Portugal and England; should be exciting. Tomorrow we go to the airport to pick up our car and start the second part of our trip: touring northern Spain before heading into France to follow the 2004 Tour de France bicycle race that begins on July 3rd in Liege, Belgium.

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