Spain

SPAIN: Cuenca (Casas Colgadas/Hanging Houses)

The city of Cuenca is located in central Spain, about 90 miles east of Madrid. Visitors from all over the world come here to see the famous Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) which hang precariously on the edge of the cliff above the Huecar River gorge. The origin of the houses remains unclear, some attribute them to the Muslims while others claim they are Medieval in foundation. These houses date back to sometime between the 13th – 15th centuries and were quite common in the area at the time. Today, only three hanging houses remain: La Casa de la Sirena (House of the Mermaid) and the two Casas de Rey (Houses of Kings) which were renovated sometime in the 20th century. These casas house the Museum of Abstract Arts and a restaurant and serve as the backdrop for millions of photos taken from the San Pablo bridge.

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Opened in 1966, The Museum of Abstract Arts is said to have one of Spain’s best abstract art collections including works by artists, Antoni Tàpies, Antonio Saura, Eduardo Chillida and Pablo Serrano. Admission to the museum is 3€ for adults and reduced rates are available for seniors and students with an I.D. Children under 10 years of age are admitted free.

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The Museum of Abstract Arts

There is a lot to see in the city of Cuenca which is bordered on three sides by the gorges of the rivers Huecar and Jucar. Take a walk in the city center, Plaza Major located in the old quarter, Ciudad Antigua. The Plaza houses a Gothic cathedral which purports to be the first ever built in Spain. There is a museum attached to the cathedral which contains painting by El Greco. Climb the Mangana Tower considered to be the remains of an Arab fortress to get marvelous views of the city below.

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Mangana Tower in the distance

 

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Just to the north of the city, you will find the Solán de Cabras Thermal Spa Resort, known for its medicinal spring waters and well worth exploring with its abundance of beautiful landscapes and waterfalls.

A visit to the city of Cuenca makes for an excellent day trip from Madrid. You can take the high-speed AVE train from Madrid, which takes approximately 45 minutes. There are also buses operated by the Avanza bus company which depart from the Mendez Alvaro bus station and take about 2 hours to reach Cuenca.

Museum of Abstract Arts Web page: http://www.march.es/arte/cuenca/?l=2

New Mexico: Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

It began in the parking lot of the Coronado Center Mall in 1972 with just 13 balloons and has grown into one of the largest ballooning events in the world. Today, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place at a permanent site equaling more than 350 acres with over 700 balloons and 1,000 pilots. Further, the event draws participants from 22 countries including Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Lithuania, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States.

The event takes place at Balloon Fiesta Park in early October and draws over 850,000 visitors to Albuquerque over its nine day duration. The fiesta is divided into two sessions: morning and evening. The nine morning sessions begin at 5:45AM and wrap up around 12PM. The five evening sessions begin at 1:30PM and end at 8PM (there are no evening sessions on some days).

In 1989, the Special Shape Rodeo was added and has become the most popular event at the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

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Visitors can walk amongst the unusual shaped balloons ranging from clowns to Star Wars characters and chat with the pilots. Each year there is a different theme and the sky is filled with balloons of all shapes and sizes creating a captivating spectacle.

If you are the daring type, you can schedule a balloon ride in advance by contacting RAINBOW RYDERS, INC. at: 1-800-725-2477.

In addition to the balloons, the event features a stage on Main Street where various bands and children’s acts perform.

For more information, visit: http://www.balloonfiesta.com/

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California: San Juan Capistrano

Beginning in 1492 with the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Spain sought to establish missions in the Southwestern United States in an effort to convert the natives dwelling there to Roman Catholicism and to facilitate the colonization of these lands.  California represents the “high-water mark” of Spanish expansion in North America, being the last and northernmost colony on the continent.

The Spanish missions in California comprise a series of religious and military outposts established by Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order between 1769 and 1833. Today, the missions are among the state’s oldest structures and the most-visited historic monuments. There are 21 missions in total.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, the most beautiful mission in the world and renowned for the return of the swallows, was the birthplace of Orange County. Founded on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1776, San Juan Capistrano has the distinction of being home to the oldest building in California still in use, a chapel built in 1782. Known alternately as “Serra’s Chapel” and “Father Serra’s Church,” it is the only existing structure where it has been documented that the Padre Junipero Serra celebrated mass.

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More than 2,000 former inhabitants (mostly Juaneño Indians) are buried in unmarked graves in the Mission’s cemetery. The remains of Father St. John O’Sullivan, who recognized the property’s historic value and worked tirelessly to conserve and rebuild its structures, are buried at the entrance to the cemetery on the west side of the property, and a statue raised in his honor stands at the head of the crypt.

Today, the mission compound serves as a museum, with the Serra Chapel being used as a chapel for the mission parish.

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The city of San Juan Capistrano was created around Mission San Juan Capistrano, and many of the homes and strip malls resemble the Spanish architecture that compose the building. It is home to the widest variety of homes in Orange County, including those built prior to 1900 in its central district, a number of 10-million-dollar homes in the gated communities of the hills, and working ranches in its foothills. San Juan Capistrano formerly hosted a population of cliff swallows that reputedly migrate each year from Argentina to the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Some points of interest worth visiting include the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano,  Trabuco Creek,  El Adobe de Capistrano,  The Depot and the Los Rios District.

Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano was established in 1986 and is located just northwest of Mission San Juan Capistrano. The church’s design is patterned after the Mission’s original stone church, which was destroyed in an 1812 earthquake. The prominent feature of the basilica is the Grand Retablo, a 42-foot-high, 30-foot-wide, 16-ton altar-backing carved in cedar and covered in gold leaf which is stylistically reminiscent of 17th- and 18th-century Spanish colonial and Mexican colonial retablos.

Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano

Trabuco Creek is a 22-mile stream which rises in the rugged canyon of the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange County.  The creek flows west and southwest before emptying into San Juan Creek in the city of San Juan Capistrano. The area is popular for off-roading, hiking, fishing and camping.

Trabuco Creek

El Adobe de Capistrano is a restaurant located in San Juan Capistrano. It has been in operation since 1948 and is located in a building composed of two historic adobes.  The adobe which comprises the northern portion of the restaurant was built as the home of Miguel Yorba in 1797. The southern portion, from 1812, was the Juzgado (court and jails). The Juzgado’s jail cell now serves as the restaurant’s wine cellar and is rumored to harbor a ghost.

While in office, former President Richard Nixon whose nearby San Clemente home was known as the Western White House, visited the restaurant many times. The restaurant was originally continental cuisine, but after comments by Nixon, it gained attention for its Mexican fare and changed the menu.

El Adobe de Capistrano

The San Juan Capistrano station (The Depot) was originally opened in 1894. It was one of the earliest examples of Mission Revival Style architecture used in railway stations. In 1966, the station was closed, two years ahead of the end of Santa Fe passenger service to the city. However, rail service was restored to the station in 1974, under the auspices of Amtrak.  A year later the depot was converted into a restaurant, with vintage rolling stock used to expand the space.

The Depot

The Los Rios Historic District is home to buildings dating back to 1794, and is the oldest continually occupied neighborhood in the state. The neighborhood originally had 40 adobe structures but most were replaced in the 19th century by wooden structures. Three adobes still remain in the Los Rios neighborhood itself, although there are a number of others close by outside of it which were part of what was once a larger neighborhood. Thirty-one of the buildings in Los Rios and the surrounding area are on the national register of historic places.

Visiting San Juan Capistrano and the Mission make for a great day trip.  I love visiting historic places and would highly recommend this to those of you who enjoy history as much as I do. Try out one of the many restaurants nearby and do take in some shopping, you can find some great deals on native American merchandise here.

Spain: Barcelona/ Toledo

Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city after Madrid and the capital of Catalonia, a sovereign community of Spain. Located directly on the northeastern Mediterranean coast of Spain, the city has a rich history spanning 2,000 years when it gained prominence as a Roman town under its old name, Barcino. Barcelona is very modern, yet exceptionally old, where the new elements work to both preserve and celebrate the ancient.

Barcelona, just buildings

In 1992, Barcelona gained international recognition by hosting the Olympic Games which created a massive upturn in its tourism industry.

The official languages spoken in Barcelona are Catalan and Spanish, however, most signs are only in Catalan because it is established by law as the official language.  In tourist areas, almost all shops and bars have some English speaking staff. People will generally make an effort to try to help you if you speak English.

Customs Building near the port

Customs Building near the port

Paeja Cathedral

Paeja Cathedral

In the distance, the Columbus Monument at the lower end of La Rambla, Barcelona,

In the distance, the Columbus Monument at the lower end of La Rambla, Barcelona

The city is dotted with outdoor markets, restaurants, shops, museums and churches and is ideally suited for walking. Most shops and shopping malls are closed on Sundays because of law restrictions, but not all. In Ciutat Vella you will find plenty of small fashion and souvenir shops as well as small supermarkets that are open on Sundays.

The multi-peaked Montserrat mountain range lies within an hour and a half away from the city. There is a Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, in the center of the mountain range where visitors can attend masses. The monastery is Catalonia’s most important religious retreat and groups of young people from all over Catalonia make overnight treks there at least once in their lives to watch the sunrise from the heights of Montserrat.

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Montserrat, a multi-peaked mountain-1

Basilica at Montserrat

Basilica at Montserrat

One of Catalonia’s favorite sons was Antoni Gaudí, an architect and the leader of Catalan Modernism. Gaudí’s works reflect a highly individual and distinctive style and are largely concentrated in Barcelona.  Among the sites which can be toured today are the Parc Güell in Gràcia, the La Pedrera, Casa Milà, and La Casa Batlló houses and the Sagrada Família.

La Casa Batlló

La Casa Batlló

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Parc Güell Lizard in Gràcia

Parc Güell Lizard in Gràcia

Parc Güell in Gràcia

Parc Güell in Gràcia

La Sagrada Familia, the city’s landmark is one of the most famous and breathtaking locations to visit. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in November 2010 was consecrated and proclaimed a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI.

The construction of the church began nearly a century ago.  The height of the church is exactly equal to the height of the largest mountain in the nearby hills because Gaudi felt that no man-made creation should ever rise above God’s natural creations. The height of the church is overwhelming when standing at its base and the inside is even more impressive. Upon entering the church, one is amazed by the height of the ceiling supported by beautiful hand shaped columns, designed to resemble the trunks of trees. Gaudi was a nature lover and strived to include many elements of God’s natural beauty within his work. Toward the center of church beautiful stained glass windows line the walls of the church. During the day these windows produce incredible natural light, Gaudi’s personal favorite that illuminates the inner monastery.

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Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia-3

Barcelona’s cuisine is inconsistent in quality but good food does exist at reasonable prices. Seek out cafes and restaurants where the locals frequent. Most restaurants and some bars offer a menú del dia which constitutes a simple two course meal (a salad, a main dish and a drink) for a sensible price.

La Boqueria

La Boqueria

Port Olimpic restaurant district, La Barca del Salamanca

Port Olympic restaurant district, La Barca del Salamanca

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Barcelona, snail shaped bread at Los Caracoles (Mika)

Official Barcelona Tourism Webpage: http://www.barcelonaturisme.com/

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Situated 440 miles from Barcelona is the city of Toledo, located in central Spain. The city is the capital of autonomous community of Castile–La Mancha. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 for its extensive cultural and monumental heritage and place of coexistence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures.

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The old city is located on a mountaintop surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River. There are many historical sites worth visiting, including the Alcázar, the cathedral (Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo), and the Plaza de Zocodover.

An alcázar is a type of Spanish castle. The Alcázar of Toledo is a stone fort located in the highest part of Toledo which was once used as a Roman palace.

The cathedral of Toledo is one of the three 13th-century High Gothic cathedrals in Spain whose construction was begun in 1226.  The main chapel of the cathedral brings together a wealth of artwork, including important paintings by Luis Medina and Francisco Ricci.

The Plaza de Zocodover is the central point of the city where locals and visitors gather. The main streets of the old part of town start here and lead tourists to the major historical sites. You can also catch the tourist train here for a jaunt around Toledo. Traditional markets, such as the famous “Martes” (Tuesday market) still take place in this square. Great bullfights, fiestas and horrific executions have also taken place here.

The Prado Museum

The Prado Museum

The Prado Museum

The Prado Museum

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City of Toledo-4

Toledo Tourism: http://www.go-toledo.com/

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Photographic credits:  Moritoshi Inaba, Mika Panzaroni