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Portugal 0516
Portugal 0616

Cruising on the Queen Isabel

Lisbon (2 days) - Porto (3 days) - Entre-os-Rios - Regua - Pinhao - Pocinho - Vega de Terron - Madrid (3 days)

 
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Rating (out of 5):     Ship    Food    Service    Itinerary

Marjorie booked this Uniworld Douro River cruise as a "last minute" cruise, at very attractive T/A pricing. We had done the Rhine, Mosel, Danube and Rhone rivers, and it was time for something a little different. The cruise was packaged with a pre-cruise stay in Lisbon and a post-cruise stay in Madrid which just added to the appeal. The only thing that we were somewhat leary of was the fact that most of the "excursion targets" where not on the river, so significant busing was required each day. This turned out to be not as bad as we thought, as the countryside was very interesting.

The normal capacity of the Queen Isabel is 118 passengers, so we were a sparse crowd at only 78 passengers. I presume that the ship was listed with the T/A specials due to having 40 empty beds. By fluke, there were ten of us from Calgary! The rest were from Canada, the US, Britain and Australia. All of the crew were Portuguese, and even the ship itself as Uniworld doesn't own it. Our cabin was very small; the service was good, but spotty; and food was good but limited in selection - hence the 4 star ratings. But, in all, we really enjoyed the cruise. It was a surprise that the ship featured a waist deep swimming pool on the top deck. Only 2 or 3 people used it.

The entertainment was a little lite on this cruise. One of the staff played piano and sang each evening. Only one evening did they have "come aboard" entertainers, a male singer and female piano accompianist. We were tired that night and didn't stay up to listen to them, but we heard from others that they were wonderful. Another possible drawback to the cruise is that it was very busy cruise with little "my time". However, if you were here to really see Portugal, then this is how it should be! Each evening before our 7:00 dinner there was a "port talk" where Luiz explained all we would see and do on the following day.

The entire trip was in sunshine with occasional cloudy patches. We started with temperatures of 21 or 22 degrees in Lisbon, then in to the mid 20's in Porto. As we headed up river, things heated up to the low 30's, finishing with 35 to 37 degrees in Madrid and Toledo. By the end of the trip it was really quite stifling and we really appreciated the air conditioned ship, hotels and buses. On the bright side (pun intended) the beautiful blue sky was awesome for taking pictures.

Pre-cruise Day 1 (June 23, 24) - Traveling to Lisbon

Our good friends Ian & Shirley picked us up at 3:45 in the afternoon and drove us to the airport by 4:10. We were lucky that we left home early as the traffic was really backed up on the Deerfoot. We went through check-in and security, and were at the gate by 5:00. The plane left on time at 6:30, bound for London. We arrived in England at 10:00 AM with lots of time until our 1:45 connection. Our connecting plane was 1/2 hour late arriving so this in turn delayed us 1/2 hour in leaving to Lisbon. While vegging at Heathrow we heard about the Brexit vote. Silly people! Our Portugal TAP flight arrived in Lisbon at 5:00. After grabbing our bags and going through customs, we were picked up by a hotel shuttle and delivered to the Intercontinental Hotel at 6:00. We went immediately to the Uniworld orientation lecture (and wine tasting) to learn about the upcoming events. We were up to our room by 7:15 and our bags had been delivered to our room. We unpacked, went for a walk around the hotel vicinity and went to bed (with sleeping pill) by 8:30. What a long day!

 

Pre-cruise Day 2 (June 25) - A day in Lisbon

We were up at 6:00 and headed down to the buffet breakfast. It was very nice. We read for a bit and then joined our 8:30 bus tour. We had a comprehensive driving tour of the city, with some walking stops at the Belem Tower, the "Monument to the Discoveries", the Hieronymites Monestary (with Vasco da Gama) and the old town. In the old town we stopped at a bakery to sample the famous Portuguese custard tart known as pasteis de nata. We also visited the Rossio Square, the busiest square in Lisbon. We were back to the hotel by 1:00 for an afternoon on our own. We walked a short distance from the hotel and chose a sidewalk cafe for a lunch of breaded hake and potato salad. Marjorie had grocery shopping on her mind, so we left the restaurant, trekked across a huge green park and discovered an "El Corte Ingles" with a huge food floor. We bought some drinks and snacks and then returned through the lovely park to the hotel. Marjorie popped out for some more shopping while I organized our photos (to date) and then read a bit. We ate the snack from the grocery store for dinner, watched some Euro football (go Portugal!!) and then did an early turn in.

 
 

Pre-cruise Day 3 (June 26) - Traveling Lisbon to Porto

Today we ended our visit to Lisbon with a northerly drive to Porto. We were up at 6:30 and had another great hotel breakfast. We put our bags out at 7:30, settled our hotel account ($0) and then read a bit as we waited for our 8:30 departure. We drove for about an hour and then had our first stop - a one hour visit to the medieval town of Obidos. The little village is so charming that the kings of Portugal traditionally gave it to their queens as a wedding present. As we entered the town, we could have climbed some steps and walked along the city wall, but it was narrow with no railings, so we did the main street instead. Others that did do the wall were not impressed either. We walked to the end of the street where a bicycle race was in progress! There were a number of structures being set up for the Medieval Market (July 14 to August 7). We meandered back to the front gate using some smaller, winding lanes. Most of the buildings seemed to be souvenir shops or restaurants, but were nonetheless very interesting. We reboarded the bus and set out again through the cork forests of the Portuguese coast.

 
 
 

It was about 1/2 an hour to our next stop - the town of Coimbra. This was the capital of Portugal before it was moved to Lisbon. It is the third largest city in Portugal (after Lisbon and Porto) and the birthplace of 6 of Portugal's kings. It is also the home of one of Europe's biggest universities. We walked from the bus stop to the university complex and looked around the faculty buildings on the huge square. We entered a huge library (called the Joanina) which was endowed by King Joao V in the 18th century. There were over 300,000 books from the 16th to 18th centuries. The books are susceptible to damage from insects, but there is a colony of bats that keep them at bay (don't believe me? Google it!). After visiting the library we did a short walk through the town and stopped at a hotel for lunch. The lunch was unmemorable. All I can remember was a caldron of pigs' ears (which I didn't try!). Back on the bus, we drove for about 1.5 hours to the city of Porto. We arrived at our ship by 4:00 PM. We checked in and then unpacked our bags for our week long stay. Muster was at 6:15 and then dinner at 7:00. I had pork tenderloin which was very good. Dinner finished at 9:00 which wasn't so good! It was a long but interesting day. Off to bed.
 

Interlude - Port, Porto and Oporto

Porto is the Portuguese name of the city where port (the drink) is manfactured. It sits on the mouth of the Douro River that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The English (and, more recently, the international) name of the city is Oporto. Porto actually consists of two historic cities (like Buda-pest) of Porto on the north bank of the river and Gaia on the south bank of the river. All of the grapes used in the port process must come from the Douro Valley appellation which is east of the city of Porto as shown on the map to the left. The grapes are crushed and partially fermented into wine in the appellation and then shipped down the Douro River to Porto. The partial fermentation ensures a higher residual sugar and lower alcohol content. In Porto, the port houses fortify the wine with a 77% wine distillation to produce port which is then placed into oak barrels for aging. Not all of the grapes are used for port, some are used for table wines produced and shipped from the Douro Valley.

 

Day 4 (June 27) - A day in Porto

We were up for our 7:30 breakfast , and ready for our 8:45 bus tour of Porto. We were docked on the Gaia side of the river so had to cross a bridge to the Porto side. There was quite a bit of traffic so the going was slow. Our first stop was at the Stock Exchange Palace, a very palatial building where the heads of the various port houses would meet to discuss port production matters. It reminded me of the city halls (or Radhauses) we had seen in other countries. One room (the Arab Room) was exquisitely decorated as a moorish room, much like the Alhambra in Granada. This 19th century building is currently known as the Palacio da Bolsa and is used for official ceremonies and royal visits. We spent about an hour visiting the different rooms and hearing about the history of the building and the port producers association. Then it was back on the bus to continue our city tour.

 

Our next stop was at a large city square. On one corner was a pair of churches.The Carmo (monks) and Carmelitas (nuns) churches look like the biggest church in the city. In fact, they are two churches separated by one of the world's narrowest houses. This house was built to make all contact between the nuns and the monks impossible. Facing the front of the complex the Carmo Church is on the right and Carmelitas Church is on the left. The Carmo Church had a large blue tile scene on the ouside wall. On the opposite corner was a park leading up to the Clerigos Tower, on the highest point of Porto. There was also a bookstore (the Lello & Irmao Bookstore ) which gained fame as not only the most beautiful bookstore in Europe, but also the place where J.K. Rowling was rumoured to have gotten her inspiration for the Harry Potter books. After another short drive we walked a short distance to the train station which had beautiful blue tile wall murals. The murals depicted famous scenes from the history of Porto. Finally we drove past the Henry the Navigator monument and the red steel building where the Ferreira marketplace was located. We drove over the bridge to Gaia and were back at the ship by 12:30. I really enjoyed this tour.
 

After lunch at 1:30 we headed off on another tour - a wine tasting at Taylor's. We drove up the hill just behind the docks and were let out at the port houses of Taylor and Croft. These two houses were owned by the same people. We were assigned to the Croft tour, so while waiting for the tour guide we popped into the Taylor sales shop to see what they had. The guide arrived so we toured through cool oak barrel storage rooms to the tasting room. We tried a white and a rose port (not your regular port!). Afterwards we hustled back to the Taylor shop to get two bottles of white port for Mike and Matt. Prices were really good! Then it was back to the ship (by 3:30). We wandered the souvenir shops in the docking area and Marjorie bought a table cloth and 3 tea towels (for herself, Christina and Stacy). We walked along the dock to where the Rabelo boats of the port houses were docked. These are replicas of the ships used to transport the wine from the Douro valley to Porto in the old days. It was very hot out, so we returned to read in the ship's air conditioned lounge. Then it was dinner time . I had lamb shank. Very good.
 

Day 5 (June 28) - A bus trip to Guimaraes

We were up at 6:30 and had breakfast on the ship. We had a choice of two morning excursions - Guimaraes (included) or a cork factory (extra expense). We decided on the included tour to Guimaraes, north of Porto in the province of Minho. We left on the bus at 8:45 and arrived at Guimaraes about an hour later. Guimaraes is considered to tbe the birthplace of Portugal as this is where the first king of Portugal (Afonso I) came from. Afonso won Portugal's independence in the 12th century. We were let off of the bus near the highest point of the town and had a short walk up to a 10th century castle - the Castle of Guimaraes. It was decorated for some coming festival. From there, it was all downhill. We walked through the old town stopping at the main square, called the Largo de Mumadona. We were surrounded by beautiful buildings. We popped into a bakery for a couple of custard tarts. From there we walked down to two churches - the 10th century Monestary and Church of Our Lady of Oliveira, and the 14th century Padrao do Salado. After touring the church we sat outside and had our tarts with a Coke. Then it was back on the bus for our 1 hour trip back to the ship. We arrived onboard about 1:00.
 

We had lunch and then enjoyed the 1:30 sailaway. Yes, we were finally leaving Porto after two days attached to the dock. Note: Over the past two days I had noticed that other cruise ships leaving our dock seemed to go the wrong way - towards the ocean rather than heading up river. Also, ships joining us at the dock seemed to come from the ocean direction. As our captain made the same mistake and headed oceanside, I realized what was happening. The Douro River curved to the right just downriver from the dock, hiding the estuary and the ocean. It turned out that a standard part of the cruise was to spend about an hour sailing out into the estuary and then doing a u-turn and heading back upstream as if starting from the ocean. Now heading in the right direction, we were heading for the village of Entre-os-Rios. We watched the beautiful riverscape roll by from the upper deck, but it got to be quite hot. At 3:00 there was a lecture on the Portuguese and Spanish explorers so we ducked into the air conditioned lounge. Afterwards we read and vegged in the lounge. We arrived at Entre-os-Rios at 6:00 PM. Dinner was at 7:00 and I had breaded cod. A very nice day.
 

Day 6 (June 29) - Amarante and Aveleda

We were up at 7:00. We had a nice breakfast and then headed off to our 8:15 tour. We would be visiting the villages of Amarante and Aveleda. It was about an hour's drive to Amarante, through the Portuguese countryside. Note: It was St. Goncalo, a hermit and Dominican priest, who put Amarante on the map in the 12th century when the Pope made him the object of veneration and Amarante a place of pilgrimage. St. Goncalo is a patron saint of marriage - which has given rise to a distinctive local pastry made in the shape of a fertility symbol. The bus parked and we walked along the main street to a bakery that was serving the local fertility symbols. Yummy! Then we walked across the stone bridge over the Tamega River. There we visited the Dominican monastery and church. Then we were given a half hour or so to wander on our own. We walked about a block to the local market place and strolled among the booths. The idyllic setting of this village and the beautiful architecture makes this one of my favorite small towns - right up there with Dubrovnik, Bamberg and Alberobella. We all met again at the bus lot and headed off to our next village - Aveleda.
 
 
Our drive to Aveleda took about 1/2 hour. We drove through the village to the outskirts and stopped at a wine estate (or quinta in Portuguese) that had a heavily forested section. The Aveleda Quinta has been owned by the Guedes family for 15 generations. We walked through the forest that contained flower gardens, lakes and fountains, quaint buildings all in the cool shade of the huge trees. The forest trail eventually led us to the estate mansion where we went inside for a wine tasting. We were in the Vinho Verde (green wine) region of Portugal ("green" meaning "young", similar to "Beaujolais", rather than any green colouring), so our tasting consisted of young white and rose wines. The wines were good but a little thin in flavour. After the tasting, we roamed around the gardens and the out buildings. Beautifull! We really enjoyed our forest stop - a brilliant choice for an excursion on a hot day.
 
 
We bused back to the ship at Entre-os-Rios and arrived at 1:00 for lunch. At 1:30 we set sail for Regua. We spent the afternoon viewing the landscape from the top deck, then retreating to the lounge when it got too hot. The surrounding hills were covered in terraced vinyards. There are only 5 locks on the Douro River so we averaged about 1 or 2 per day. It made for a fast sail which is why you can cover the navigable portion of the river in 2 or 3 days. We arrived at Regua at 5:30. As soon as we docked, we all left the ship and trudged up several flights of stairs to the Douro Museum. There they had a slide / video presentation for us about the history of the valley and the wine trade. It was very interesting. We then had a tasting of a couple of wines. We were welcome to browse through the museum, but by this time it was nearly 7:00 and dinner was beckoning. So, it was back down the stairs and onto the ship. For dinner I had a strip loin but it was really tough. By chance, I wasn't very hungry for some reason, so I was fine. We watched some Wimbledon tennis then went to bed.
 

Day 7 (June 30) - Lamego and Mateus

We were up at 7:00 for another day full of touring. We had breakfast and then headed out for our 9:00 excursion to the town of Lamego. It was about an hour by bus in a southerly direction. Once there, we were toured through the town, then taken to the top of the hill at a large church - Our Lady of Remedies. We toured inside the church then were given free time to walk down the cascading steps (600 of 'em) to the bottom of the hill. The steps were grouped into about 8 intricate landings, each decorated with sculptures and blue tile murals. Well, the top landings were fully decorated with each lower landing being less ornate. I guess they ran out of resourses as each landing was completed. Near the bottom of the landings, a road ran right across the landing. We detoured to the right to a small restaurant where we had a wine tasting and some snackies. Then we returned to the staircase to continue our downward spiral. At the bottom of the staircase was an extended plaza (largo in Portuguese) that stretched right through the town.
 
 
 
We walked the length of the plaza ending up where the bus was going to pick us up in about 1/2 hour. Seeming as we had time to spare, we popped into a nearby tourist info place and got directions to a local grocery store called Pingo Doce. The route had some twists and turns, some stairs, and even a foot bridge, but we made it OK. Marjorie bought some juice and chocolate bars. We got back to the bus zone in plenty of time for the bus. The drive back to the ship seemed quite quick (maybe I slept) and we arrived back in Regua about 12:30. We ate lunch as the ship got underway to Folgosa. We enjoyed the scenery as we travelled up the river, but it didn't last long as we reached Folgosa at 2:00. The buses were there to meet us and at 2:30 we headed off on our second excursion of the day. Folgosa was not our final destination for the day. So, after we had left on the buses, the ship continued up the river to Pinhao where we would eventually rendezvous with the ship again.

Our second excursion was to the Casa de Mateus in Vila Real. This time we were headed north of the river. The Mateus palace became famous when a line drawing of the palace was used on bottles of Mateus rose wine in the 1970's. Mateus wine has nothing to do with the Mateus palace. It is actually produced by Sandeman's who pay a fee to use the portrait and name of the palace. After leaving the bus, our first view of the baroque style palace was across a small pond. The reflections were perfect! Then we hiked around the pond to the palace. We were given a tour of the inside of the palace which was furnished with 18th century furniture and exquisite Portuguese and Chinese ceramics. The palace was built by the Mourao family in 1740. After the tour we had a tasting of wines from the region (not Mateus, of course). We had free time then to browse through the family chapel and then wander through the extensive gardens at the back of the estate. The gardens included a mini version of the Versailles gardens. Not having been to Versailles, I am unable to judge the accuracy of this claim. By this time it was 4:30 and time to get back on the buses for our next excursion.

 
 

The final part of our outing was a 1/2 hour drive up to a plateau and the hilltop winery of Quinta da Avessada. The whole plateau area has several large vinyards, all planted with Muscat grapes. The Moscatels wine is very popular in Portugal so that only about 10% of the annual production is exported. The owner, Luis Barros, has revived this winery and has partnered with the tourist industry to provide dinners and informative evenings (as well as a fun time) to augment the winery business. Luis is a very personable and interesting person with some of the guests likening him to Mr. Bean. He was hillarious when telling jokes. Our tour strated with a visit to the dark aging rooms. Then we had a tasting of the Muscat wines outside in the garden area while serenaded with an accordian and drum. Then we were called into dinner and had a vast array of "typical" Portuguese dishes. I really enjoyed the meal. Some people elected to do some group dances after the meal, while others of us enjoyed the evening sunshine in the garden. There were a number of very friendly dogs around the property and it turned out that they had 14 dogs, all of which had been abandoned at their farm at various times. At 8:30 we all piled back into the buses and were back to the ship by 9:00. While we had been partying, the ship had relocated from Folgosa to Pinhao so the drive home was somewhat shorter. We watched some of the Portugal / Poland soccer match in the lounge then headed to bed. It had been a long but very pleasant day.
 

Day 8 (July 1) - Sandeman's and Pinhao

We were up at 7:00. For breakfast I had my usual "omelet with everything" and some cut up fruit. Our tour for the day was a trip to one of Sandeman's quinta (vinyard) called Quinta do Seixo, not far from Pinhao. We left on the bus at 8:45 and wound our way up a very narrow switchback road through terraced vinyards. We arrived at Quinta do Seixo and there was a large Sandeman building overlooking the vinyards and the Douro valley. What a fabulous view! The guides were dressed up like the Sandeman logo, with a black cape and a black sombrero. How cool! Our guide took us through rooms of oak barrels and racks of bottles, all in a ghostly lighting system. The displays in the building were very well done. Our guide's talk was very interesting about the history of Sandeman's and the making of port. We ended up in the tasting room where we tasted a white port and a red port. We browsed through the wine shop and noticed the bottles of Mateus wine. The label really did resemble the palace we had visited yesterday! For our free time we exited the building and looked at the wonderful views of the surrounding area. I am enclosing a link to some larger viewscape photos.
 
We reboarded the bus, headed back down the switchback road and were at the ship by 11:00. We actually left the bus about 1/2 mile from the ship so that we could walk through the little village of Pinhao. We were let out right by the railway station. The small station was decorated with many blue tile murals depicting cultural highlights. We crossed the train tracks and walked down to the waterfront. There, we walked along the quay away from our ship to a train bridge. Marjorie popped into a fancy looking hotel to check it out. Then we reversed and walked back along the quay to a footbridge across the river, leading to our ship. By the time we reached the ship it was 12:30. Shortly after, while eating lunch, the ship set sail for Pocinho. We sat on the upper deck for a while as we went through a lock and some very narrow sections of the river. When we got too hot, we relocated to the much cooler lounge. We arrived at Pocinho where there was nothing but a boat slip. No town, Nothing. That night was our farewell dinner - a special menu of which I chose the beef tournados. They were very good. We watched some Euro soccer and then went to bed.
 
 

Day 9 (July 2) - Castelo Rodrigo

We were up at 7:00 to have another wonderful breakfast. We had a leisurely time to make it to our 9:00 AM bus tour. Today we were going to visit Castelo Rodrigo, a 13th centrury medieval village high atop Marofa Mountain. It was built under the auspices of the king of Leon, but it became part of Portugal within a century. It was about an hour's drive through hills, vinyards. and almond orchards The bus parked nearby the city walls and we entered the town through a crumbling city gate. The buildings were mostly constructed of a golden sandstone. We had a guided tour of most of the village and then took a break for a wine tasting at a converted restaurant. The wine was a mix of regular wine (Castel Garcia) and an almond liquor. Then we were given about an hour to wander around on our own. Then it was back on the bus and a return trip to our ship. We were aboard by 12:30 - just in time for lunch.
 
As we ate lunch we set sail from Pocinho for the final section of the river. We viewed the scenery from the upper deck until we got too hot, and then from the lounge. Mid-afternoon we hit the narrowest section of the river (of the length that is navigable). You could almost reach out at touch the walls of the canyon either side of the ship. I don't know why we didn't scrape bottom! Marjorie popped away at 3:00 for a cooking demonstration. I think it was on making the famous custard tarts. We reached Vega de Terron at 5:00 and once again there was nothing there. No town, nothing. We couldn't even find Vega de Terron on a map! At this point the river does a right angle turn from its east / west direction to travel north and becomes the border between Portugal and Spain (and un-navigable). We were actually docked on the Spanish side of the river and could look across and see Portugal. So, Vega de Terron is actually a Spanish location. It was goodbye to Portugal and hello to Spain. We did a bit of a walk on the dock area then headed in for the port talk and dinner. Afterwards we watched some Euro soccer and then went to bed.

Day 10 (July 3) - To Madrid via Salamanca

Today was the final day of the cruise portion of the trip. We were up at 6:00 and had an early breakfast. We did our checkout at the front desk then grabbed our carry-on bag and left our "checked" baggage in our room. The bus service would take care of that. We were on the bus at 7:00. We waved goodbye to the Queen Isobel and the wonderful staff, then headed east on the long road to Madrid. We quickly discovered that the air conditioning on our bus wasn't working. It was about 32 outside and even warmer in the bus. Phew! We stiffled for an hour and then stopped for our first visit of the day - Salamanca. We were instructed to change our watches an hour ahead for Spanish time, so it was now 9:00. We left the bus and walked along some modern streets until we came to the old town and the huge Plaza Mayor. The plaza was totally enclosed by a huge quadrangle building that was built in the 19th century.
 

From the plaza we walked though the old town to the university which was constructed by Alfonso IX in 1218 AD. We toured through the univesity building looking in at the large lecture halls. It was very interesting. There was a group in costume including a couple of musicians. I wasn't sure what that was about.Then we walked over to a large plaza where the "new" (16th century) and "old" (13th century) cathedrals were. The two cathedrals are attached together and, in fact, you get to the old cathedral by going through the new cathedral. Both churches were beautiful inside. We returned to the Plaza Mayor which ended the tour. We were given an hour to have lunch and then meet up at the plaza again for a walk to the buses. Uniworld had included lunch for the day in their land/cruise package and gave each of us 15 Euro which was quite adequate. Meals in Spain seemed to be pretty reasonably priced. We had spied a Carrefours (grocery store) earlier in the day and hustled to find it again. Marjorie bought some juices and a beer for me. We popped into a deli / bar and had an apple custard desert and a Coke.
 

We met back at the big plaza and walked down a narrow street to the bus. There had been no success in fixing the air conditioning so we were once more in a mobile oven. About 1/2 hour later we stopped at a photo op overlooking the walled town of Avila. The view of the hilltop medieval village was awesome. As we were reboarding the buses, we asked the other bus if there was room to 2 more people. Yes, they had room for us and a few more. The air conditioning felt awesome!! We enjoyed the final 1.5 hour drive to Madrid. We arrived at our hotel by 5:00. The Westin Palace was a beautiful older hotel. We checked in and unpacked. At 7:00 we joined the others for a walking tour of the area with the emphasis on restaurants. Marjorie and I decided that when in Spain, eat Japanese. We had tempura shrimp and sushi at "Miss Sushi". We returned to the hotel to watch some Euro soccer, then went to bed.
 

Day 11 (July 4) - Paintings and dancing in Madrid

Today was a full day in Madrid. We were up at 7:00 for a wonderful breakfast at the hotel. Our city bus tour started at 8:45 and we drove by many important buildings, monuments and plazas. It really was an interesting and historic city. Our first stop was at the royal palace. We were given a lecture on the history of Spain and the royal palace, Then were given time to wander about the exterior of the palace (we didn't have time or tickets to enter the palace building). The tour ended right across from our hotel, at the Prado Museum. The museum is huge with hundreds of paintings, so our guide trimmed it down to 15 of her favorite paintings that spanned the centuries and artistic periods. We did the paintings in chronological order, which took about 2 hours. We returned to the hotel by 1:30 and then headed to a nearby Burger King for lunch (I know that's cheating but we'd been away for 11 days!). It was very hot out (35 or so) so we spent the afternoon mostly vegging in the hotel. At 6:00 we were bused to an authentic flamenco restaurant. We were served a tapas dinner with wine and beer followed by a flamenco dance presentation. The dancing (2 men, 2 women) was emotional and loud (tap dancing) and accompanied by 2 guitars, percussion and 3 male singers. I enjoyed it, but once was enough! When we came out of the restaurant it had been raining. That was the only rain for the entire trip. It was close to 10:00 so we went straight to bed.
 
 

Day 12 (July 5) - A day trip to Toledo

Today was a full day trip to Toledo. We had a great breakfast in the hotel and then headed out on the bus for a one hour drive to the ancient city. Toledo was the capital of Spain before the center of power was moved to Madrid. As we approached Toledo, the bus detoured to the hill on the opposite side of the river for a fantastic photo op - a view of the city. Then we crossed the bridge and stopped in a special bus parking lot. Right near the parking lot was a restaurant - the Hosta El Cardenal. We had some drinks and snacks to fortify us for the city tour. Toledo is a hilltop city, so the bus parking was much lower than the city. They had built into the hill a series of 5 long escalators to ferry people up to the town level. Great idea! We entered the city walls near the Jewish sector and walked to a huge synagogue. The design was very moorish. The only sign of a Jewish connection was a star of David hidden in the intricate arab scroll work. Then we continued to the old school of arts which is now an events hall. Further on we came to a huge cathedral - the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo. We went inside and it was enormous.
 
As our guide was explaining something, I heard a buzzing sound somewhere in the cathedral. I left the group to discover what it was. Around the corner from the choir, in the huge apse, there was a drone with an HD camera flying in the air. It was filming a man with red robes moving along a third story balcony. I wonder what that was about? After visiting the church we were given an hour for lunch. We tried a restaurant that our guide had recommended. I had a large chicken and vegetable crepe which was only 3.60 Euro, including a bottle of Coke! Once again, cheap food in Spain. The crepe was delicious. Afterwards we assembled at the main square so that we could bus it back to the hotel. We were back to the hotel about 3:00. We read for a bit and then at 6:00 we headed down to the farewell cocktail party. We had a drink and some munchies and then it was time to say goodbye. We had kind of filled up on snacks, so didn't want dinner. Instead we walked a few blocks to a recommended gelato shop and had ice creams. Yum!! We did our final walk around the area and then turned in to the hotel for the night.
 

Day 13 (July 6) - The long trip home

Our time had come and it was time to head home again. We were up at 5:30 to donate our luggage to the bellhop. Then it was down to the restaurant for juice and buns. Our bus was at 6:30 to the airport. We got to the airport by about 7:00 and checked in for our flight to Toronto. Things were pretty well on time and we got to Toronto about 11:00. We had time to have a BBQ beef wrap at Tim Horton's. Our next flight was from Toronto to Calgary where we were ontime again. Ian and Shirley were waiting at the airport for us. We were pleased that this time we would be landing at 4:30 and not having to delay I&S. However, just after we landed there was a thunderstorm alert so the ground crew weren't allowed to bring in our bags. We had to wait almost an hour before the bags arrived. Poor I&S. Anyway, we were home by about 6:00 to find all was well and the kitties were happy to see us. Another wonderful cruise!!