Friday, February 22, 2019

Madrid: stately boulevards, baroque palaces, history, mystery and more

A fine place to start your tour of Madrid is at the Royal Palace,where nearby is an 8th Century Arab wall.

Madrid is an interesting blend of the practical and fanciful.
Here luncheon diners enjoy a snack in the presence of an artful bull.

STEP INTO history in Madrid, where the narrow alleys and streets of this stately medieval city wind back into a rich history, originally as an Arab fortress.
Madrid is known worldwide for its elegant boulevards and expansive, manicured parks such as the Buen Retiro. It’s renowned for its rich repositories of European art, including the Prado Museum’s works by Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters. The heart of old Hapsburg Madrid is the portico-lined Plaza Mayor, a delightful place to while away an hour or two with a wonderful variety of shops and eateries.
THE ARAB influence permeates old Madrid. The city was founded on Calle Cuesta de la Vega, where a wall protected a fortress built in the 8th century by Emir Mohammed I.
Madrid is famous for ham and here at a corner kiosk
it is possible to buy a quick ham sandwich, fruit and drink.
The city's name comes from the Arabic word, "mayrit," which means "water source".
You'll want to take in the Royal Palace, at the Arab Wall, a stunning design with baroque touches and a gorgeous square.  It is now used mainly for ceremonial and public functions, and is open to the public as a museum of the building’s and the country’s history.
The reigning King Felipe VI and the Royal Family do not reside in the palace, choosing instead the more modest Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid.
Madrid's plazas and squares flow seamlessly from one
street to another. Madreinos love to stroll.
The Palace is fairly new by European standards, built in the 18th century by Philip V on the site of the old Alcázar fortress, another Moorish castle.
The palace has 135,000 square meters (1,450,000 square feet) of floorspace and contains a whopping 3,418 rooms. It is the largest royal palace in Europe.
Madrid is one of Europe's most elegant and lively cities.  Dinner is usually taken after 10 p.m., and Madrilenos love to linger.  A meal typically takes two or three hours.  Impressively, the native folks don't seem to need much sleep. They don't seem to mind partying at night and still arising in time for work at 9 a.m. No problema.
THE CITY'S cultural offerings are vast and varied and there are cafes and bars for every budget. We based at the lovely Villa Real, in the Plaza de las Cortes, an upscale Derby hotel decorated with ancient art pieces and modern paintings. Throughout the city are art galleries with world class fare.
The Circle of Fine Arts at Alcala Street is known for its graceful design.
The stately Prado Museum, one of Europe's most famous cultural treasures, was putting the finishing touches on a major renovation during our recent visit.
Museo del Prado was founded in 1819 as a public showcase for Spain’s royal art collection. Since then, the national institution has far surpassed, in both world renown and collection size, the walls of its exquisite 17th-century home. Like many old Madrid buildings, it was built as a palace 200 years before it became a museum.
 In an effort to preserve its authentic architecture and modernize its gallery spaces, the Pardo undertook a major renovation. The Hall of Realms was just finishing its "redo" when we were there a few weeks ago. A huge competition four years ago determined the architectural firm.
This ice cream and dessert cafe has an easy view of lines
for lotto tickets. The crowds near the back are in line too.
But the Prado is not the only arts museum worthy of your time.  There are several dozen, and many have free admission on certain days.
Remember to make your dinner reservations early if you're dining after 9 p.m. We remember the time we booked an "early" dinner-dance show -- for 11 p.m. (The late show seating began at 12:45 a.m!)
MADRID is lively, vibrant, changing.  Ladies dress smartly, with tight jeans and form fitting blouses and plenty of decolletage.  The men dress more stylishly than many other Europeans. Especially in an early cool spring, and throughout winter and autumn, you'll rarely see a woman without a nattily tied scarf.

A fine production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe features three dozen rock 'n' roll,
 blues and other classic pop tunes, at New Village Arts in Carlsbad.
UP NEXT: Curtain going up on an exciting spring arts season in southern California.  From Hershey Felder's masterpiece, on the life of Beethoven, to a snappy rock-n-rollin' "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and other engaging musical and dramatic picks, we'll explore  the best of our lively arts scene. San Diego Musical Theater offers a fine "Crazy for You" with Gershwin's magic, and ambitious Cygnet tackles "Angels in America."  Theatrical treasures await.  Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us each Friday for a fresh approach to travel, nature, family and the arts.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Whale bonanza as great grays head south to give birth, play in Baja

A misty blast of water from the whale's blow hole helps us see him, as our Hornblower boat moves closer.

For sailors worldwide, the San Diego skyline is one of the prettiest.

THE AIR was crisp and fresh, the sun shone bright and our group of 200 aboard Hornblower was in the mood for whale watching.
We were NOT disappointed!
The Hornblower bar did a brisk business as nature lovers from Europe, Asia and North America cast off from San Diego Bay in search of migrating grey whales.
A frisky dolphin dives near the boat to our delight.
 While we motored out, a lively commentary began with a capsule of the magnificent whale's life and travels, his breaching, "spyhopping" and mating habits. We followed the main channel past Harbor Island, Shelter Island, graceful yachts, sailboat races, our exotic submarine base, popular restaurants, the U.S. Coastguard Station, our Navy Base, and into the ocean, a scenic 40-minute journey.
For us, it's a pilgrimage we make several times a season, a lovely way to enjoy whale watching as well as to admire one of the prettiest skylines and harbors in the world.
San Diego's abundant pleasures include the opportunity to observe one of nature's grandest creatures close-up and we take full advantage as often as possible.
 When a whale spyhops, it pokes its head out of the water.
 Most oceanographers say spyhopping simply lets the animals
 get a better view of activity near the water's surface.
We found this great grey near Alaska,
where we also saw humpbacks.
THIS TRIP, we saw about 10 grey whales -- in peak migration season -- each one about the width of a basketball court. Two of our sightings were of mating pods, three whales each.  The greys often mate in a trio. We've seen babies with their mothers in April, heading north. But since the gestation period is 12 months, the ones we see mating these year will give birth next year.
We'll be looking again in April for the mothers and calves.
Keller took this photo last April, a thrill for both of us. 
Dolphins are also a delight on our whale watching expeditions. They frolic, jump and dive for us, enjoying their captive audience.
 The whales know we're nearby and don't seem to mind.  Some experts speculate that they are naturally curious and trusting, which could explain their near demise at the hands of the ruthless and greedy whalers of yore.
These beautiful creatures travel at about five knots (about six miles per hour), so when a boat captain or passenger spots one, we slow down -- usually from five or six miles out, although we've seen them at closer range. Someone hollers "thar she blows" and gauges the direction off the boat -- 2 o'clock, 11 o'clock, etc.
A mature gray whale heads into a deep dive.
Their spectacular journey is over 10,000 miles roundtrip, for us, the best opportunity to view. We've taken whale watching ventures in Hawaii, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Polynesia and Iceland - but have never had better whale watching than right here in our own back yard.
This year, we've been out only twice, not our usual half-dozen times, exploring the 70 miles of coastline in the migration path.
Another  grey whale "spyhop" off the coast of San Diego near La Jolla.
The gray whales start swimming south from Alaska in October,  passing the coast off San Diego from December through February, and again in March and into April, when they head north. But it's not unusual to see a northbound whale this time of year.  For as our captain said, "The whales don't have a time table. And it varies year to year, season to season."
SO WE TRY TO catch the mighty grey whales coming and going.  After spending time in warm Baja California waters so their young can grow strong and pregnant cows gain weight, they make the journey north again later in spring. This remarkable trip of 20,000 creatures represents the longest known distance any mammal migrates on an annual basis. Experts from San Diego's Natural History Museum enhance the trip with information and dialogue with curious passengers.
Wonders await aboard Hornblower's whale watch.
For this Montana girl and my San Diego born partner, it is an extraordinary spectacle.
In summer, the legendary blue whales -- the largest animals on Earth -- feed offshore the San Diego coast. Once on a summer cocktail cruise, we spotted a blue. We've also seen humpbacks, fin whales, pilot, minke and even killer whales off our gorgeous waters!
View the Whale & Dolphin Watching Brochure
Jeffrey Scott Parsons as Bobby Child is surrounded by a terrific tap-dancing
ensemble in a fine production of "Crazy for You" by San Diego Musical Theatre.
BEST BET: Magnificent tap dancing and winning Gershwin tunes grace Horton Grand Theatre, San Diego, in a satisfying production of "Crazy For You."  The thoroughly fun, old-fashioned musical features snappy numbers performed with panache by a terrific ensemble, a well tuned orchestra, colorful set and a series of show-stoppers ala Busby Berkeley. Impressive season opener for SDMT, the lovingly crafted endeavor of producers Erin and Gary Lewis. Through March 3. 
Madrid's stately boulevards are handsome and inviting even in winter.

 NEXT UP: Madrid.  Think elegant boulevards, baroque palaces and expansive, manicured parks. We take you to this exciting and historic central Spain city,  renowned for its rich repositories of European art, including the Prado Museum’s works by Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters. The heart of old Hapsburg Madrid is the portico-lined Plaza Mayor and we'll be there! Remember to explore, learn and live and visit us each Friday for a fresh take on travel, nature, the arts and family.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Eurail maintains its reputation for an excellent way to see Europe

Eurail offers efficient, pleasurable train travel in Europe. Purchased in the U.S., Eurail allows the traveler to
experience many European countries in clean, comfortable cars, with the latest technology, snacks and fine views. 


View from a first-class coach on a Eurail train between Rome and Florence.

Christene (Cookie) Meyers relaxes in a comfy coach
with the daily Italian paper, her phone and Eurail pass.
FEELING LIKE 20-year olds again, we launched our latest European odyssey on Eurail.
It was my 55th trip to Europe, and my partner's "20-somethingth," but for our last dozen years together, we'd rented cars, used planes and booked individual train reservations for our European forays. My last Eurail experience was in 1973, my partner's in 1977.
That time-honored train pass system, launched in 1959, requires purchasing ahead in the U.S. Our encore would satisfy our mutual desire to revisit Eurail, recapturing our youth in a delightful seven-week Eurail trip.
THE EURAIL Pass, once known as "Europass" or "Eurorail pass," allows holders to travel in 31 European countries on most European railroads and even some ferry lines.
Pass holders can visit Austria, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and more.
You can buy a Eurail pass if you reside outside Europe -- living in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Asia or Africa. We met fellow travelers from all those places, including many Americans with whom we traded travel experiences, snacks and business cards.
Europe's landscape glides by on Eurail, here entering Naples. 
EUROPE'S TRAIN system is huge and Eurail is only a part of it.  There are no special Eurail trains. 'Eurail' is simply the brand name for the railpass options for overseas visitors to travel on normally scheduled European trains. Eurail passage is offered by an impressive co-operative network of 31 national train operators. A marketing team based in Utrecht in the Netherlands manages the Eurail scheme on behalf of the national train operators. It's a massive undertaking which works wonders in streamlining travel abroad.
First, do some homework, remembering that you must purchase Eurail in the U.S. before your trip. Decide between first and second-class, both of which are fine and comfortable.  A 3-month first-class ticket will cost around $2,000, less than a third that for our one-month passes, which worked beautifully with our trip. We book-ended cruises with the month-long land tour in the middle.
Train travel in Europe is an efficient, interesting way to explore the 
continent.  A Eurail pass makes it easy to move from country to country. 
FIRST-CLASS by train is lovely, comparable to comfort plus on the airplane.  First-class is available on most longer-distance trains and if you can afford it, first is a bit nicer, with wider, plusher seats, more legroom. You'll also find nicely dressed businessmen on laptops and fewer families with kids in first class. You'll also get a little snack and beverage, but it's not the airlines, so don't expect free booze for your entire journey.  A well stocked bar and snack car is near first class.
WE TRIED second-class for one of our segments-- Madrid to Barcelona.  It was just fine. It's the way most Europeans travel - unless the company is paying.  If you're booking a longer trip, there are  sleeper trains of many types -- even deluxe sleepers with en suite toilet and shower.
Once you purchase your Eurail pass, you've got 11 months to use. We activated our month-long passes on the 30th, and used them for the last time the 29th of the following month.
Eurail offers a chance to enjoy beautiful train stations, here Naples.
    Once you've learned the system -- how to use your pass to arrange specific dates and times -- Eurail offers a relaxing way to travel without the stress of driving. We enjoyed excellent fast express trains where we met locals and tourists and watched Europe glide peacefully by.
WE FOUND that Eurail rules are not complicated, but they are specific, and each country has its own system in dealing with Eurail passes and reservations. Once you get the Eurail pass, use the Eurail timetable to see if you need a reservation for a specific trip. (We paid an extra 10 Euros each to reserve longer trips.)
On some trains, a reservation is mandatory. Other reservations are optional. Some trains don't need a reservation at all.
Because most of our trips were several hours --
Bruce Keller and Cookie arrive in Florence, where the
 train station features artwork of the Tuscan countryside. 
and we were in the comfy, modern, first-class compartments with large windows -- we really enjoyed our return to Eurail. My techy partner, this column's ace photographer, also appreciated the technical amenities: hook-ups for our laptop and power for all modern devices. We had excellent cell reception except in the occasional tunnel, and used the on-line Eurail ap to check schedules and tickets. Be sure to swap out your U.S. sim card for a European version. For a little more than $40, we had unlimited communication with the greater world. More on that coming soon.
Kudos to Eurail for rekindling happy memories as we revisited favorite cities and villages in swift, stylish comfort. And in the UK, check out BritRail, which has taken us all over the country in efficient, clean and comfy style, too.;

Christene Cookie Meyers and Bruce Keller enjoy whale watching around
the world.  Their best viewings occur, however, in their own backyard. 
NEXT UP:  On the trail of the great gray whale with Cookie and Keller.  The magnificent creatures are heading south by the hundreds, passing by our San Diego perch.  We're all eyes -- aboard Hornblower -- to see whales and dolphins and share with you, as they make their way to the Baja to give birth, nurse their young and fatten them up for the return trip home.  Remember to explore, learn and live and visit us each Friday for a fresh take on travel, nature, the arts and family.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Flamenco feast: Spain visit features performances of famous art form

Flamenco dancers dazzle with their movements and hypnotic footwork.


The swirling and twirling of scarves is part of the flamenco tradition.

AS A YOUNG bride on honeymoon in Granada, I witnessed my first flamenco dance.
I was mesmerized.
The dancers were a mix of ages and shapes, but all had the expressive moves down pat -- their arms and feet moving in time to the intricate footwork, shawls whipping around their bodies. From our center table in a small dimly lit cafe, we could see the facial expressions and drops of sweat. I pressed a flower that flew from the head of one of the dancers during an intricate move.
Dancers take individual bows at the end of each piece.
THE TIME honored dance form became famous in Spain but reflects contributions from many other world cultures.  It usually features a solo performer, backed by musicians and sometimes a partner.  Hand clapping and that distinctive percussive footwork give flamenco its flair, enhanced by intricate hand, arm, and body movements. 
  Today's flamenco reflects music of Latin American, Cuban, and Jewish traditions.  It was originally not set to music but was accompanied by emotional singing and clapping of hands called “toque de palmas."
The company takes bows on stage, with the featured singer in the center here.
IN OUR annual forays to southern Spain, we always include at least one night of flamenco. On this most recent trip, we gilded the flamenco lily, choosing two very different cities and several venues to enjoy this integral part of Andalucian culture. Both Barcelona and Malaga offer fine flamenco options. One can find as many definitions of flamenco as there are tapas bars.  Most scholars agree that flamenco is composed of four elements: voice, or cante; dance, or baile; guitar, or toque, and "jaleo," which roughly translated means "hell raising."  Clapping, stomping, shouts of encouragement to the featured dancer convey the emotion of the numbers, often laments about life's sorrows and the human condition.

Flamenco guitarists and rhythm
 makers are an integral part
 of every flamenco show.
Dancers, singers and musicians share a final bow.
One of our shows, "Encuentros en la cumbre del baile," or Encounters at the pinnacle of dance, featured two of Spain's most famous flamenco dancers, Miguel "El Rubio" and Palmoa Fantova, backed by Maria Carmona and Sara Barrero. Another show, "Tablao Flamenco Cordobes," promised to convey the mystery of flamenco's singing and poetry -- paying homage to Gypsy, Moorish, and Andalusian folklore. As our waiter said, "flamenco is an outcry, an expression of love and pain, or enjoyment and happiness.  It is meant to be felt, not necessarily understood."
More information: to find flamenco on the web, google the city and flamenco: 

All aboard next week for tips on Eurail travel with our team,
Cookie and Keller, exploring the world with enthusiasm.

UP NEXT: Eurail was the way to see Europe for many young Americans in the 1970s. Our two young at heart travelers take to Eurail again, so all aboard with tips on seeing Europe anew again by train. Meanwhile, remember to explore, learn and live and catch us each Friday for a novel look at the arts, travel, nature, family and more at