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Madrid and the Costa del Sol

Author: Bob W.
Date of Trip: May 2008

Friends my wife and I met on a trip to Costa Rica had been urging us to consider a vacation in Torremolinos on Spain’s Costa del Sol. When they scheduled their twelfth consecutive vacation on the Spanish coast, we were convinced!

On Sunday evening, May 11, we flew from JFK (NY) to Madrid on Iberia airlines. An uneventful flight put us in Madrid mid-morning on Monday. After disembarking, we were met by a representative of Grand Circle Travel (GCT). At the airport, we met a couple, Bob and Gail, who were to become good friends and dinner companions throughout our stay. A prearranged bus took us to our hotel, the Tryp Washington, located on Gran Via (Grand Way). After an orientation session, we crossed the avenue to an ATM machine, then entered VIPS restaurant for a very tasty ham and cheese sandwich. Our Master Card was accepted without question, a scenario repeated throughout our stay.

In the late afternoon, our GCT representative led a walking tour up Gran Via to Plaza de Calleo, where there is a department store and many smaller shops, then along Preciados to Puerta del Sol. From there we wandered to the Plaza Mayor where archway entrances lead to a square surrounded by a large rectangular building. Outdoor cafes occupied three sides of the square. Towards the center, workmen were assembling scaffolding, speaker systems and lights for the coming celebration of the patron saint of Madrid. After studying the pictures of meal choices (from point-to-order menus intended to overcome the language barrier for non-Spanish speaking customers), we selected a cafe and ordered a vegetable pizza by pointing to the appropriate picture. Just to prove the system isn’t foolproof, our waiter delivered a different pizza from the one ordered. Being hungry, we accepted it and washed it down with a glass of pleasant house red wine.

Our impressions of Madrid were very favorable. We enjoyed the elaborate wrought iron railings and artistic embellishments on older buildings. Architectural styles were an eclectic mix. Despite an efficient subway system and frequent buses (standing room only at commuter hours) the roads were filled with a steady flow of (mostly) smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles. We noticed many small but pleasant parks.

Tuesday morning, we took a bus from a stop convenient to our hotel to Plaza de Cibeles where Rhea, Goddess of the Earth, is perched above the Cibeles fountain. From there, we walked south on the Paseo del Prado, the broad avenue leading past three outstanding art museums. We headed first to the famous Prado Museum whose spectacular collection currently featured a special Goya exhibit. After spending several hours viewing exhibits, we stopped for an enjoyable lunch in the Prado’s pleasant cafeteria.

We returned to our hotel mid-afternoon for a scheduled bus tour of the city. This was a get-acquainted tour with lots of peering out bus windows but a limited number of stops. We stopped to wander the gardens and walkways of the beautiful Royal Palace and neighboring cathedral (but hadn’t time to enter either) and stopped to view an Egyptian temple, which had been shipped stone-by-stone from the area of the Aswan Dam in grateful thanks for Spanish help in saving historic sites in the path of rising waters of the dam. After the bus tour, we headed back to the Prado to resume viewing its magnificent display of Spanish art. At closing hour, we returned to our hotel and selected the nearby Cafe Mario, an excellent and atmospheric Argentine restaurant, where we enjoyed ribs and chicken and a very nice house red wine.

On Wednesday, our third and final day in Madrid, we headed first to the Reina Sofia National Art Museum to see its impressive collection of abstract and modern art, including works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Salvador Dali. Picasso’s Guernica occupies its own gallery together with many of the drawings and preparatory paintings by which he developed the imagery and themes depicting the terror and suffering of civilians bombed during the Spanish Civil War. I regretted that the Prado, Thyssen Bornemisza and Reina Sofia museums all forbid the use of cameras, even without flash.

After viewing the extensive exhibits at the Reina Sofia, we grabbed a quick lunch and headed north on Paseo del Prado to the Thyssen Bornewisza Museum. The Thyssen, located in an old palace, is known to have one of the best and most varied art collections in the world. Its masterpieces range from old masters (dating from as early as 1390 AD) to late 20th century artists. Although we found the Thyssen to be much less crowded than the Prado, its exhibits were very impressive. We stayed at the Thyssen until its 7 p.m. closing time.

After returning to our hotel, we dined at the nearby VIPS restaurant. Despite having pointed to the desired item pictured on the menu, we were brought the wrong order. After what my stomach told me was a long delay, the correct order was delivered and was delicious. Since we were scheduled to fly to Torremolinos early in the morning, we went to bed shortly after dinner. When returning to our hotel, we had noticed large crowds of young people surging into town and drifting into taverns and restaurants, something we were surprised to see on a Wednesday evening. We soon learned that this was the eve of the celebration of the patron saint of Madrid. The next day was a citywide holiday. It was not to be a prayerful celebration.

During the two previous nights the neighborhood around our hotel had been very quiet. The narrow street outside our window had been deserted after the vegetable market had closed. This night began with the whining and banging of a trash truck. A three-day strike of trash collectors had been settled just in time to clean up a backlog of trash before the holiday. When that din subsided, a group of rowdy drunks settled into doorways. Soon, cars began to arrive, with much honking of horns and the occasional blaring of radios. Ambulance and police sirens soon joined the cacophony. Stuffing toilet paper in our ears didn’t help. Finally, at 6 a.m., the racket subsided just in time for our wake-up call.

Thursday morning, we flew from Madrid to Malaga, then traveled 30 minutes by bus to our hotel, Bajondillo Apartments, in Torremolinos. Our Grand Circle group consisted of 86 people from 22 states and Puerto Rico. The group was divided into manageable numbers assigned to various program directors. Ours, Natalia Lopez, was especially pleasant, helpful and informative throughout our stay.

We unpacked, enjoying our view of the Mediterranean and the Bajondillo’s pool from the balcony of our fourth floor efficiency apartment. First order of business for our group was an introductory dinner at an area restaurant, El Dorado. We had chicken in a mushroom cream sauce and plentiful house wine. For each night of our stay, we received coupons good for dinner (appetizer, main course, dessert and beverages) at any one of 13 restaurants within walking distance of our hotel. Each we tried proved to be excellent. We also received coupons for each day’s breakfast at the extensive Bajondillo breakfast buffet. An ID card gave us access to light beverages from the bar. That reduced our need for currency.

The coastal section of Torremolino is a hillside sloping to a beach. Stone stairways lead from the beach road to parallel streets at higher elevations. Along these stairways, and on the streets are a great variety of stores and stands selling shoes, clothes, jewelry, wallets, watches, art objects, beach towels, etc. To accommodate those who would have difficulty climbing the steep stairs, there is an elevator costing half a Euro per trip. Across from the beach, hotels restaurants and shops line the road.

On the beach side, small restaurants are positioned about a block apart. Behind each is a concession area (7 Euros for two chaise lounges and an umbrella for the day) reaching about halfway to the water. The entire waterfront beach area is public and free of charge. The water was calm most of the time because the wind, which seemed to arrive late afternoon, blew from west to east, not towards the beach. The beach was uncrowded in May but, we were told, would be jammed in July and August. Unlike most Americans, Spaniards receive a full month of vacation when they begin a job.


Saturday morning, we returned to Malaga, where we had landed on our flight from Madrid. Malaga is a small, attractive city — the main city of coastal Andalucia– located about 20 minutes drive west of Torremolinos. The port area is clean and lined with palm and plane trees and adorned with bougainvillea, aloes, geraniums and other flowering plants. Two ocean liners were docked near the waterfront promenade. A large Moorish fortress, La Alcazaba, sits on a hillside, overlooking the harbor. A tall, domed tower of a cathedral also dominates the skyline. The cathedral was designed for a second matching tower; but, the funds for construction of the tower were, at the request of Spanish General Galves (?), used instead to support the American Revolution. [We were told that Galveston, Texas was named after the General, who settled in Louisiana following the revolution.]

On the Plaza de la Merced, we walked past the home where Picasso lived after his birth in Malaga. Then we visited the small museum that houses sketches and paintings by Picasso once owned by members of his family. The museum is interesting but has few of Picasso’s more significant works. Picasso was a great fan of the Malaga bullring. The bullring was inactive when we visited it, still being cleaned up after a concert. Ten minutes seated in the ring told us two things. Two hours in the direct sun during bullfights (the cheaper seats) would be incredibly hot! And the stone seats provide no comfort. Bullfighting fans bring special cushions to make them bearable. Attached to the bullring was a small bullfighting museum containing some of the elaborate costumes and paraphernalia of famous matadors, photos of bullfights and a few mounted heads of bulls.

We stopped to see the remains of a Roman amphitheater, currently under restoration, in the shadow of the Moorish fortifications. Near the amphitheater, we entered a building housing two of the elaborate and beautiful floats carried in religious processions by various brotherhoods. Members of forty brotherhoods hand-carry heavy floats during 10-hour processions. One of the floats we saw was an elaborate gold-trimmed wood crypt elaborately carved of a variety of beautiful woods. The other was completely silver-plated with a tapestry roof and a woven silver train like that on a royal bridal gown. Each was a treasure.

We enjoyed a walk through the center of Malaga, which houses many majestic churches and small restaurants. Spanish families, dressed in their colorful Sunday best, were pouring out of one large church after a confirmation ceremony, then standing outside to chat and enjoy the beautiful weather. We picked a small restaurant for lunch and enjoyed both the food and the view of happy families.

Grenada, the Alhambra and the Generalife
On Sunday, we took a bus tour to Grenada to see the Alhambra and the Generalife, two surviving 13th century palaces of Moorish kings. Normally, buses would take express roads around the commuter-jammed city of Granada. Because most businesses were closed on Sunday morning, we were able to drive through the beautiful center city.

The Alhambra is a large and stunningly beautiful complex, displaying the finest of Arabic architecture and artistry. Fine woods, colorful tiles and exquisitely sculpted stones, graceful arches and pillars, courtyards, sculptures, fountains and garden-fringed reflecting pools dazzle the eye. The incredible details, whether accomplished by carpentry or stone carving, give an almost fairy tale appearance. The Alhambra is located on a hill overlooking the city of Grenada. Within view on the far hills are remains of the old walls (fortifications) and cave dwellings (many of which are still in use). One can only imagine what this palace complex would have looked like when it was furnished with fine and colorful carpets and pillows.

The Generalife is an adjoining smaller complex of beautiful gardens and pools. Between the two complexes is the unfinished palace of Emperor Charles V, a roofless, cylindrical, two-story, Roman style building. Open to the sky, this structure has such amazing acoustics that it has become a choice place for performances. A whisper in the center of the open atrium can be heard clearly anywhere within its perimeter. The Alhambra is well worth the trip for anyone visiting this area of Spain.

Sunday evening we attended a discussion on “Andalucian Culture & the Flamenco,” including demonstrations of the graceful footwork and hand movements of flamenco. During one evening that followed, together with a group of friends, we purchased a combined package of door-to-door bus transportation, supper, wine and a very impressive flamenco show at the Hotel Torrequebrada casino outside of Torremolinos. Tickets for this package were purchased from an area business, with guidance from our hotel.

We passed up the opportunity of a two-night, overnight trip to Seville but wanted to find an interesting one-day trip. We teamed up with another couple with the same interest and decided that Cordoba would be an interesting city to visit. Our hotel had a schedule of trains running from Malaga to Cordoba. We had only to take a train or bus from Torremolinos to Malaga which cost only one Euro each way. We traveled with morning commuters to Malaga by train.

Once in the Malaga train station, we lined up before a sign marked “information.” In time, we had worked our way up to the agent who informed us that we must first get a number from a machine in back of the station before he would help us. When we did so and finally worked our way up to the agent again, he informed us that, to buy a ticket, we had to acquire a number from a second machine before purchasing tickets from yet another agent. Given the high number we were issued, and the schedule of the train we wanted, we were afraid we’d miss our connection. Then we noticed one agent who seemed to be accommodating people. She sold us tickets just in time for our connection! A round trip on the bullet train from Malaga to Cordoba cost 124.4 Euros for two — a shock after the inexpensive commuter train on the first leg of our trip. But traveling at 175 mph, with reserved seats in a clean, quiet, smooth-riding train, was a pleasure and cut our travel time to 54 minutes each way.

Once in Cordoba, we found a tourist information booth adjacent to the train station and got maps that described area attractions.

The most impressive site was the mosque/cathedral less than a mile away. We walked through park areas and narrow streets until we reached the Mezquita, a superb example of Islamic architecture. This great mosque, which covers 16 acres, dates from Moorish times. When Christians regained the area in the 15th century, an impressive cathedral was built in the center of the mosque. Sixty small chapels ring the cathedral. Somehow, the beauty of the many interior arches of the mosque has survived. Intricate carved and painted panels and ceilings in the mosque sit near the gold-embellished opulence of the cathedral. The whole complex is impressive.

After exploring the mosque/cathedral, we wandered through neighboring squares and down interesting streets where we happened upon the partially restored ruins of a Roman temple, located next to an archeological museum (closed for siesta break). Later we discovered a cylindrical Roman mausoleum in the lovely Diego de Rivas gardens. After stopping for refreshments in a cafe, we headed back to the station for our return trip, much pleased with our day in Cordoba.

After breakfast, on Wednesday, we traveled by bus to the picturesque “white village” of Mijas set high in the Sierras with a grand view of the sea. En route, we stopped briefly at an overlook with a grand view of the sea. Standing by the overlook was an artfully shaped and photogenic Buddhist temple — gleaming white with a gold spire. Strangely enough, Mijas is not known to have any Buddhists. The temple appears to have been built as a tourist attraction!

Mijas is known for its white buildings, fine shops, donkey cart taxis, lovely flower-bedecked central square and a grotto carved in stone — a lifetime project of a monk in honor of the Virgin Mary. The small grotto was interesting and attractive, but packed with Spanish tour groups just as we entered.

Mijas protects its historic center with rules that require buildings to emulate the Andalucian style of tile roofs, wrought iron grills and whitewashed walls. We wandered up narrow cobblestone streets, many on steeply pitched hills. My wife and I joined many grizzled seniors at the town’s senior center for a cup of coffee. If only we spoke Spanish! Next I purchased a few postcards, then stopped at a little a jewelry store where I asked my wife to select a necklace and earrings to celebrate our 42nd wedding anniversary, which fell on that day. [Later, we pulled out the anniversary cards we had brought from home to Spain.]

After our shopping, we (along with a great many school children) entered the Mijas Museum. The museum, wrapped around a lovely courtyard, displayed life and working implements from the 19th century, including farm implements, grindstone mechanisms, wine barrels and wine making equipment. One room displayed paintings by local artists. Admission was free.

When we returned to the small, flower-edged park in the center of town, we were entertained by a couple dancing flamenco in an open pavilion — a pleasant way to pass the time until our return to Torremolinos. After returning to our apartment, we lay in the sun and swam in the Bajondillo’s pool. Three couples we knew joined us for dinner to celebrate our anniversary.

The next few days were spent relaxing, walking along the seaside promenade, enjoying the pool and climbing the steep and narrow cobblestone streets of Torremolinos where small shops, stands and restaurants line the streets. We had scheduled a trip to Ronda, a little mountain town that Ernest Hemingway described as “the most beautiful place on earth.” Unfortunately, I managed to pick up some kind of rash and swelling on one leg. So, a visit to a doctor and pharmacy substituted for our planned trip to the mountains. Maybe next time we’ll get to see and photograph Ronda. Our days of relaxation were topped off by a party hosted by the friends who had first interested us in traveling to the Costa del Sol. Their apartment was a spacious corner-front unit with wrap around balcony — perfect for a party.

Antequera and Salinas

Two days before flying home, we took our final trip into the countryside. Grand Circle builds a home-hosted meal into many of its vacation trips. We had enjoyed lunch at a small ranch in Costa Rica and dinner with an exceptionally nice family in Mexico. This time, we would enjoy lunch in the small village of Salinas, Spain. En route we stopped outside of the town of Antequera to tour an olive oil museum maintained by the olive oil co-op. We remembered that every lunch we had ordered in Torremolinos had been served with a complementary plate of green olives, each split but containing its pit. On the drive up, we had passed seemingly endless miles of olive groves. A few old olive trees and flowering gardens stood outside the museum. Inside was a large reproduction of an old olive press (about 20 feet in length), large clay containers once used to store olive oil and small jars of oil used to demonstrate different colors and qualities of oil. Our guide carefully explained the difference qualities of olive oil and how they are manufactured. Today, large centrifuges have replaced oil presses.

Antequera was the site of a town where the Romans grew olives trees and extracted olive oil. Excavation is underway to restore Roman ruins, including a Roman mosaic tile floor located near the olive oil museum. Another excavation, predating the Romans, is thought to have been a 10,000-year-old stone dwelling. The town became the site of a fort when under Moorish domination. After the Christian re-conquest, many stone churches and convents were built along narrow, winding streets, interrupted by small squares. Some of these structures, dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, are still in use. Another building of note is Antequera’s bullring, which has a beautiful exterior facade. We found this town to be appealing partly because it appeared to be off the usual tourist track.

From Antequera we continued on to the small village of Salinas. Our luncheon host was a woman living in what appeared to be very new housing. She had one of four side-by-side tiled-roof townhouse units. Her home impressed us with its high quality of construction, including the use of marble for the staircase, tiled floor and baseboards, a modern, fully equipped kitchen, two baths and three bedrooms. An awning-covered patio served as the entry. A second floor concrete deck looked out over rolling hills. The house was decorated with family photos, paintings (including good quality religious prints), flowers and very nice furniture. We learned that this home was only a few years old. This certainly was not the simple village home we had expected! Our program director, Natalia, later explained that the touches of opulence simply reflected the fact that Spaniards invest very heavily in their homes.

We had successfully managed to join a group of four friends, one of whom had emigrated from Bolivia and spoke good Spanish. With his help we were able to communicate with our hostess, Loli, who served a wonderful lunch. We feasted on a large salad with fruits, vegetables sausages, olives, chicken, meatballs, pasta, soup, roast pork in gravy, pan-fried potatoes and onions, dessert pastries, coffee, wine and “after-dinner” brandy and liqueurs. All this prepared for just six of us! Loli must have had at least a week’s supply of leftovers!

We had one more day at leisure in Torremolinos, capped off with a farewell dinner. We dressed up a bit for dinner, toasted our new friends, exchanged addresses and phone numbers and regretted that this vacation was at an end. Early the next day, we were driven to Malaga for our flight home via Madrid. Commuter hour traffic from JFK told us that the restful days in Spain were definitely behind us. Fond memories remain.

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