Category Archives: Europe

Returning Home from Helsinki – 26 Hours After Arriving There

Helsinki’s Uunisaari Island was one of the places I saw before having to rush back to the States in March 2020.

March 11, 2020 is listed as the date when the impact of Covid-19 pandemic was recognized in the United States and lockdowns and closures took effect. On the next day, March 12, I had to leave the happiest country in the world — 26 hours after getting there. 

Here’s what happened. Originally this entry was to be published as an article in a digital outlet, but the story was nixed. I decided to share it here.

In early March of last year, I was set to go to Finland on a five-day work trip to see why it was chosen as the happiness country in the world by The World Happiness Report in 2018, 2019, and 2020. As a travel writer, sent on assignment, I was to find out what seemingly made Finland’s people feel great while going about their daily lives. And maybe I could apply a tip or two to myself.  

In the midst of this happiness, at this time, the global threat of COVID-19 grew. Europe had become the epicenter of the epidemic with more reported cases, and the World Health Organization characterized this coronavirus as a pandemic. In the U.S., the CDC reported cases of related illnesses were climbing; in the second week of March, the number was over 2,000 and would still be rising. 

Hotel St. George’s Wintergarden lounge bar and restaurant, where I stayed briefly in Helsinki.

Day One

The growing impact would come back to hit our trip starting with our arrival on March 11 after taking an overnight flight there the day before. Initially, we were set to take part in a new but now cancelled campaign. We were to attend a “Happiness School,” where its planned focus was to show visitors like myself how to reconnect with nature and embrace Finnish habits, language and ways.

During four previously planned school days, I was to be taught about this Finnish sense of happiness through cuisine, physical outdoor activity, craftmaking and other objectives. 

To be mindful of the health concerns caused by the outbreak, the Happiness School concept was postponed. Our trip was still on, but instead we’d be focusing on exploring why Finland is such a happy place.

Another writer from the States and I arrived in Helsinki on the morning of March 11, a day before the announcement of Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell testing positive for coronavirus. 

We checked into Hotel St. George, a stylish luxury and wellness-focused property within a 19th-century building in the city center, next to Helsinki’s Old Church Park. At the time, other guests were staying there as well. I saw them hanging out within its Wintergarten lounge bar and restaurant or dining in Restaurant Andrea or grabbing a pastry or something else to go from its St. George Bakery & Bar.

Our media group ate dinner at Finnjävel, a Finnish restaurant.

We had an entire afternoon to explore Helsinki on our own before our scheduled dinner at Finnjävel, a restaurant exploring Finland’s northern food culture. The experimental menu consisted of traditional Finnish foods — from dairy to root vegetables, rye and wild berries, to meats and fish — across its regions that are commonly eaten. But this night, they were revisioned for us with a chef’s twist. We tasted Finnish spinach pancakes, rye bread, a crispy pork belly paired with boiled potatoes, and Pannukakku, an oven-baked pancake presented to us as a dessert. 

The next day’s schedule was packed with activity. Our guided walking tour was to take us to the Amos Rex Art Museum, Kamppi Chapel, also known as “the Chapel of Silence,” and Oodi Central Library, among other attractions.

We’d also experience Finnish sauna culture — a bathing ritual noted for its cleansing and calming properties — at Uusi Sauna. Then we’d head to the southwest coast to the city of Turku the following day.

At Uunisaari, I learned I had to head back to my hotel and get to the airport fast.

I explored the hotel and the neighborhood, stopping at a Burger King that unbeknownst to me had a sauna inside of it. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I purchased my food order directly from workers with cash. No one seemed concerned about standing in close proximity; no masks were worn.

Since we were to see a lot in Helsinki on the following day, I figured it would be best to take it easy on my first day. I assumed wrong. 

Something Is Up

In the early Thursday morning hours, my jetlag had me catching texts from my sister sent late on Wednesday night. President Trump had just declared all transatlantic air travel to the United States from Europe suspended for 30 days, effective Friday, March 13. 

“Figure out how to get home if you’re not leaving sooner,” she wrote.

I was set to fly home on Sunday, March 15. I googled the specifics to learn more.

The 30-day travel ban had involved 26 countries belonging to the Schengen border-free travel area such as Finland. However, it still permitted U.S. citizens back into the U.S. As much as I wanted to take that gamble, and wait out my Sunday departure to experience the full trip, I envisioned a competitive race to fly home before the Friday close to midnight deadline.

I waited to hear from Halla Joonas, our Visit Finland contact, on what to do. Halla would change our flights to Friday, March 13, which would have us missing the second leg of the trip but would at least give us another day in Helsinki.  

On rainy and cold day two, being Thursday, March 12, we headed to the island of Uunisaari in southern Helsinki, to the restaurant and sauna of the same name. Warming up inside this building, I spotted urgent texts from Halla. 

One of the buildings in Helsinki I saw on our way back to the hotel.

“PLEASE CALL BACK ASAP”

“Just got news and you would need to be on [the] 12:40 flight today”

“They might not be able to fly on Friday is what they are saying now from Finnair, please call back”

We called back, and it was clear. The other American journalist on the trip and I had to leave. It was about 10:30 in the morning at that point, and my 26-hour visit finished up with a hurried tram ride back to our hotel. I kept my eye on the tram windows to take in my last images of Helsinki on this route. At our stop, we said goodbye to two other journalists from Spain who could continue on the trip.

With a stealth-like check of my hotel room, I returned to the lobby with my bags. Taru Itälinna, who coordinates publicity for My Helsinki and was taking us around town on this day, checked us in for our Finnair flights by navigating through a Finnish language process on our phones.

Back To The Airport

Taru joined us on the cab ride to the airport and helped me check in my suitcase at the counter right as the cutoff point took effect. With her being there, and explaining to the counter employee what happened in Finnish, my bag made it through to JFK okay.

Taru was my voice of calm. I think if I was there on my own, I’d be a nervous wreck.

At the airport, our endless walk to our gate went from security, a DUTY free shop, passport control and a long winding route to our gate. Our flight to JFK was fairly full; gate agents asked us if we had been to China before boarding. Hand sanitizer was present. 

Nothing out of the ordinary occurred on the flight home, except for passengers wiping down tray tables and seat belt buckles. Once we landed at JFK, I expected questioning or something more at U.S. customs. When I was at my passport control, an officer asked me how I was feeling and if I had visited China. His questioning was standard, but he had me get my bags searched after I told him I had brought back some Finnish berry smoothie powders with me. 

My gate at Helsinki airport

When I got home, I went into lockdown and only stepped out being masked up for big shopping outings and needs such as an outdoor walk.

Following Up

Two weeks later, on March 24, 2020, I emailed Halla to thank him again and see how things were going in Helsinki. Three days after I sent my message, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced restrictions imposed on domestic travel in and out of the Uusimaa region, an area in Southern Finland where Helsinki is located, to further prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Halla’s reply sounded hopeful. “The situation is still relatively good,” he wrote back then. People seemed calm, he said. Restaurants were selling only take-out food and drink; even alcohol, which was forbidden normally. They, bars and cafes were reported to be closed until May 31, 2020. Cultural venues, sports centers and municipalities such as day care services for the elderly were shut down as well.

Yet, Halla told me that keeping a social distance can be done easily, since Helsinki has many public outdoor spaces. As of this recap writing, the Finnish Government is extending the restrictions on entry into Finland until March 18, 2021. Restaurants are open but their stance may change.

Back home, I lost my day job a few months later but thankfully I had some other means to make it financially through last year. Like everyone else, I Zoomed with others. And like others, I lost someone partly to COVID-19 and knew others who also lost their relatives and loved ones to the pandemic or had become ill and recovered. Now, I support travel locally as I’m able to do so, from giving financially when I could to organizations helping with restaurant relief, to food banks and then later some to those involved with social change.

And as of the end of April 2021, I am now vaccinated. Stay safe and be well.

Icelandair Offers Stopover Buddy Program

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Iceland’s Blue Lagoon

Here is a fun news item: Icelandair has launched a new service called Stopover Buddy that provides passengers with stopovers in Iceland with someone to hang out. The Stopover Buddy is for those flying to Europe, and it’s free. (But technically, you have bought an Icelandair plane ticket and you have to stay up to seven nights in Iceland at no additional airfare.)

At times, fliers heading to Europe might first stop to Iceland en route to their final destination, and find themselves with some time to kill between flights in Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport. If time permits, they often leave the airport and venture out to places like the Blue Lagoon. But if you’re flying solo, Icelandair’s Stopover Buddy program is a nice incentive. It lets you be in the company of a local guide, who doesn’t mind keeping you company. Your buddy will be an Icelandair employee.

The Stopover Buddy program works like this. Before their flight, Icelandair passengers put in an advanced request for a buddy. This temporary pal (or potentially newly-made friend) is an Icelandic native who is paired up with a passenger based on a mutual interest: nature, culture, cuisine, or just some fun sightseeing. Once this information is submitted, the Stopover Buddy will set up an itinerary based on what his/her fly-by friend wants to do. It could involve seeing a specific place or local favorite spot or even doing an activity like hiking or biking.

Sadly, your chance to find a short-term buddy in Iceland is short. Icelandair’s Stopover Buddy program is available now through April 30. Plus you have to be 18 and up to use it. And your buddy will hang out with you for one day only.

My Travel Plans (So Far) for 2016

New PhotWe are now five days into 2016, and already I have some travel plans and goals for this year. Of course, I’m hoping to visit new destinations, but there are other areas that I want to head into. Here is what I’m hoping to accomplish this year.

My first solo work trip.
Last year, my travel writing got a big boost. I landed five freelance assignments that brought me to Wyoming, Michigan, and California, had me revisiting New Haven, Connecticut, and fulfilling a wish to visit Costa Rica. Though the locations differed, one thing they had in common was that I was in a group of other travel writers and bloggers. But I have some news to share: this month, I’m working on plans to go to Texas on my own for a piece for a new outlet I hope to do more writing with. I have ties to the Lone Star State and haven’t been there for 30 years, so I’m looking forward to going back.

Expanding search options.
My method of picking flights centers on mainly route, schedule, and cost. Unfortunately I’m still new to figuring out airline mileage programs, and, because of my budget and other reasons, I only belong to two of them: Southwest and JetBlue. I have a lot to learn but recently I’ve been checking out more of another source for savings: third-party search engines. In choosing a soon to use flight, I gave Kayak a try and found a direct, neither too early or late morning flight for at least $100 less than going through the airline’s website! So I booked. For comparison, I now do an initial search through Google Flights, another search engine.

Making time for family travel.
Although my interest in solo travel perked up a lot last year, it’s still nice to have someone come along. My younger sister and my cousin are my main plus ones, and they’re joining me on some excursions this year. I’m heading back to Jamaica with my sis this month, specifically to Montego Bay, where we hope to get in some bonding over swimming and bike riding. (Her flight in is way earlier that mine, so might give her some distance for recovery). I’m also excited about returning to Europe this summer. Part of my family is based there, and for years, I’ve been exploring parts of the continent with my European cousin. For 2016, we’re going to see Scandinavia – specifically Denmark, Norway, and Sweden! And within the U.S., I’ll be joining the younger set of my family for an April trip to Walt Disney World (which I haven’t been to since I was a teenager).
What do you have planned for 2016? Let me know.

Eurail Releases New 2015 Offerings

Photo: Eurail

For getting around Europe, it’s best to do so by rail. And depending upon your itinerary and finances, rail passes can provide a viable option.

Recently I went to a reception held by Eurail Group G.I.E., a cooperative effort that streamlines Europe’s national railway companies, to hear about new offerings for 2015.

If you’re new to Eurail, here’s some background info. Eurail Group G.I.E. sells different rail passes for travelers who reside within Europe (called Interrail) and those who don’t (called Eurail) for train travel to most major European countries that are available for certain periods of time. Interrail has just two types to choose from (One Country and Global Pass) and is valid for 30 countries. Eurail has four kinds (Global, Select, Regional, and One Country) with periods ranging from three days to three months and is valid for 28 countries.

Graphic: Eurail The various European railroads belonging to Eurail.

At their reception, Eurail revealed some new offerings and developments. They include:

  • Attica Pass: This new Eurail One Country Pass is designed in mind for those who want to do some hopping around the Greek Islands. The pass consists of six ferry crossings within one month: two international trips between Italy and Greece, and four domestic trips to the islands.
  • 1st Class Youth: To keep families together in first class: a 1st Class Option is now available for Eurail’s youth pass. Before this, youth travelers had to buy an adult ticket to be up in these cars.
  • Global Pass 5 days in 10 days: Since Spain, Italy, and Germany are popular destinations – particularly with Americans – and don’t border each other via a railway connection, this global pass gives with a shorter validity for those who require more flexibility. So with this pass, for example, you can spend two days in Berlin, Munich, Milan, Barcelona, and finally Madrid.
  • New Countries Participating: Four countries have been added onto the Eurail Global Pass, bringing the total number up to 28. They are: Poland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Montenegro.

Personally, I haven’t bought Eurail passes, but the closest thing for me was riding the D-Bahn (which is included in Eurail Group G.I.E.) on my trip to Germany and Switzerland last summer. Visit Eurail’s website to get further descriptions and prices on various rail passes.

Year In Review: Travel Highs and Lows in 2014

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In getting ready to unplug for Christmas and other holiday fun, my last post for 2014 is about this year’s top travel moments. Here is a list of both my high points and low points with some takeaways.

Highs

  • Traveling across country by rail. In late August, I went to Germany with my cousin and we decided to use the Deutsche Bahn railroad system to get around. We started from Berlin to Hamburg, then on to Heidelberg, Cologne and Munich and then ended our trip in Lucerne, Switzerland. The overall experience was great and a money saver. Months before we went, I bought each advanced ticket online (my cousin gave me all the dates, times and destinations I needed to select) and printed out all of them to bring along with me. By doing this, I paid maybe between 35-55 Euros (roughly 40-60 in US dollars) per ticket. If I had waited longer, the prices would have gone higher. The D-Bahn is a very reliable service and it’s nice to be able to stare out the window while en route from one city to the other. I definitely recommend taking the train when traveling, especially abroad.
  • Going to my first TBEX. TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) is an annual conference season for travel bloggers of all types and levels that happens usually at destinations in both North America and Europe. This year marked my first time going. In September, I was at its North American conference in Cancun and overall I had a nice time. Many friends went, and some even spoke, and I got to meet well-known travel media pros like Johnny Jet and The Planet D. Next year’s TBEX Europe is in Costa Brava, Spain and there is also going to be a first-ever TBEX Asia in Bangkok. Some might debate about whether TBEX is worth going to or not but there are perks like vendor discounts and good networking ops. Plus, if you’ve wanted to go to the destination TBEX is being held in, now’s your chance.
  • Visiting Jamaica. Another travel first this year was going to the Caribbean. I got picked by Visit Jamaica’s tourism board to go on a Bucket list themed press trip in four quick but fun days. My media group ventured along Jamaica’s north coast and spent time in Kingston, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. I’ll be writing about each part of it soon but overall our trip involved cultural, culinary and thrill-seeking activities. Like going on a bobsled ride.

LOWS

  • Getting pick-pocketed in Cologne. I’m usually pretty good with nervously keeping an eye on my stuff. I messed up in Cologne when I kept leaving my purse open when I took out my camera or iPhone to take photos inside the Cologne Cathedral. I can’t remember how long it took before I realized that my wallet had been stolen. I probably was distracted or maybe it was a bump and grab move. Still, it sucked to lose my credit card, driver’s license and insurance card. Thankfully, my passport and extra Euros were still on me. I wrote about it here if you want to learn more.
  • Running out of money in Lucerne. Another thing I think I’m decent with is travel spending money and bringing enough with me. But I really misjudged prices in Switzerland. The Swiss Franc is higher than the Euro, so something as simple as a fast food combo order can equal out to 12 Francs. Or even an over-the-counter bottle of ibuprofen can cost 9 (And that was for the smallest size I could find). My cash stash ran out two days before I was to head home and I had no cards on me (I didn’t bring my debit card). My cousin gave me some money, which made me feel bad, but thanks to him I didn’t go hungry.
  • Discovering how (not so) far my dollars go. Being a freelancer for the past four years has opened up some cool travel media invites and opportunities for me. At the same, I’ve been spending more this year than I should without balancing out the difference. For 2015, I’m also looking more at closer destinations with shorter stays. As of now, my set plans start in May, as I’ll be heading up to Toronto for a weekend getaway. My goal is to get to Asia next fall (hopefully for TBEX), so in order to afford to do that I’m planning in advance now by cutting spending and cutting down on debt. And getting more work going.

Hope this year was a good one for you and that 2015 will be even better. Happy Holidays and safe travels!

Air Berlin Ushers In Düsseldorf Carnival

photo 1Did you know that Düsseldorf’s Carnival Season lasts four months long? Last Tuesday night, Air Berlin and Düsseldorf Marketing and Tourism put on a shorter version of this German city’s colorful celebration with a reception at Blaue Gans in the TriBeCa district.

The reception featured German beers and local delicacies, and invites asked people to come in costumes. One travel writer did. Others like me put on whimsical hats or were draped with streamers by our hosts.

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We also learned a thing or two about Düsseldorf and its history with carnival. Having started this week, this street festival in Düsseldorf’s city center is made up of different segments such as the city’s ladies and youth having their turns at taking over the parade route for a while.

Even elected officials have their moment. By tradition, carnival time lets Düsseldorf’s citizens get away with poking fun at leaders through silly puppets and the like. The carnival season will be over February 18.

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And of course, in completing the night, a trio of performers had their act going.

photo 5With Düsseldorf, I actually spent maybe 40 minutes there via my connection from their airport to JFK. I was flying on Air Berlin, coming first from Geneva, and had to make it through the gate in a short amount of time to my next departure. Speaking just as a customer, their gate crew offered to switch me to a front row seat so I could get off the plane quicker to help make my connection. They suggested it. That was awesome.

 

I Got to #TrySwedish Cuisine with Visit Sweden

Although I came late to The Old Bowery Station in New York City’s downtown area, I did still get the chance to taste some Swedish delicacies at an invitation-only event held by Visit Sweden last week. The afternoon gathering was all about learning and tasting foods from Western Sweden as part of Visit Sweden’s #TrySwedish promotion.

One of the great food locations on Sweden’s Western coast is the seaside city of Gothenburg. Gothenburg gets high marks for multiple seafood varieties and I was able to sample some Nordic style sushi. If you happen to get to this city, vRÅ is recommended as a good place for sushi and the Michelin starred Sjömagasinet is known for both its fine traditional and creative seafood dishes. I also got to sip on a lovely berry-flavored Rekorderlig Cider, which originated in Sweden.

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In addition to what I ate–and what I sadly missed out on eating–it was nice to later read up on Swedish culinary traditions and growing food movements such saving and using more of indigenous ingredients and a renaissance of artisan beverages. Bread and cakes are said to be still much loved in Sweden, from kanelbullar cinnamon rolls (there’s actually a Cinnamon Bun Day every October!) to a dark rye called kavring.

photo(147)Culinary accolades also go beyond Gothenburg. In Sweden’s Jämtland region, the city of Östersund has been designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy with its fine cheeses and meats, herbs, and breads.

Plus with culinary tourism growing in public taste, it’s fitting that Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had the foodie foresight to initiate a campaign called “Sweden – the New Culinary Nation” in 2008. It has an ambitious goal of making Sweden a leading country for food by 2020.

Last week’s event tied in with the second annual NORTH Food Festival, a week-long showcase of Nordic culinary presentations and tastings. Learn more about #TrySwedish here.

 

What to See in Seville

Continuing on through Southern Spain, Seville is one of the cities in the Andalusia region that has a good share of Moorish architecture (a reminder of the population that lived in this region of the country) still in place. Here is what I recommend seeing.

In the narrow-street section of Santa Cruz, set aside a good amount of time to fully walk through two signature landmarks.

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First, the Cathedral (or known as Catedral) stands on the site of a former mosque dating back to the 12th century. When you get there, you will first see a courtyard known as Patio de los Naranjos. Here, in keeping with religious practices, Muslims would wash their hands and feet in the fountain found here before praying. As you will also notice around Seville, plus get a scent of, orange blossom trees are lined up within this space.

DSCN2293 DSCN2309Consecrated as a cathedral in the mid-1200s, the area would be reconstructed as a Gothic church over the course of about a century, with works of art in its ornate chapels and sacristies.

DSCN2364 DSCN2362A key part of the cathedral is the Tomb of Christopher Columbus. His proven remains are stored inside a raised coffin with four statues as “pallbearers” that represent four former Spanish kingdoms (each were separate of each other) of Castille, Leon, Aragon and Navarra.

 

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To get a higher view of Seville, visitors can also climb up the steps of the Cathedral’s bell tower, La Giralda. You can walk all around the top, and find great scenery at every angle.

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When leaving the Cathedral, making a right hand turn to get out onto the street, and across the way is the next marvel to visit: The Real Alcazar. As a royal residence, The Real Alcazar is the oldest Spanish royal palace still in use. You’ll see the gate with a crowned lion on your way in, and after you go through the ticket counter, you’ll end up in the courtyard.

DSCN2403DSCN2405DSCN2413Like the Alhambra in Granada, here you will find a smaller version of this palace with mosaics and geometrical patterns. This place has been the home of Spanish kings, each of whom have added their personal touches.

DSCN2415DSCN2430DSCN2440It’s also a place of history. Among what’s happened here: Queen Isabelle I dispatched navigators from this palace off on their voyage to the New World. Also, spend time in the gardens here, with beautiful fountains and terraces.DSCN2444 DSCN2448 DSCN2455 DSCN2468 DSCN2460

Another spot to go to that’s outside of the city center is the Parque Maria Luisa, where you can walk around the Plaza de Espana. This plaza was built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, to showcase exhibits in this world’s fair.

It’s a huge half-circle with buildings running around it, and over by a moat, there are bridges also representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. By the walls of the plaza are the Alcoves of the Provinces, which are tiled alcoves representing different provinces of Spain.

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The Plaza de España has also been used as a filming location. Scenes for the film Lawrence of Arabia were shot here as well as scenes for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

DSCN2217 DSCN2209 DSCN2208 DSCN2205 DSCN2202 DSCN2199 DSCN2192 DSCN2191 DSCN2194 DSCN2210I hope these recommendations get you started off right on your visit in Seville.

Walk through Granada’s Alhambra

DSCN1920DSCN1927 DSCN1932Without a doubt, mention Granada, and the first attraction that often comes to mind in this city in Spain’s Andalusia region in the Alhambra. Rightfully so. Talking a stroll through this UNESCO World Heritage site, a standing legacy of the region’s Moorish architecture, can make you feel like you just stepped into an Arabian Nights story.

Dating back more than a 1,000 years, this palace and fortress complex grew over time in space and structure, from once being a small fort to being first a Muslim and then Christian palace and then finally being restored to its glory after rediscovered by explorers and travelers.

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As pictures can show much more than my writing can describe you, here’s my pictorial on my recent visit to the Alhambra. Yet, with some guidance.

Being its own walled-in city, the Alhambra is primarily divided into four main parts: the Alcazaba, Nasrid Palaces, the Partal area, and the Generalife. I’ll break down each of them.

DSCN1957After going through the entrance, you’ll first pass along the Royal Water Channel and the Seven-Storied Gate to make your way eventually to the Alcazaba. It’s the oldest part of the Alhambra, and it was the military area.

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DSCN1981 DSCN1980 DSCN1973 DSCN1972 DSCN1971 DSCN1970Going inside, the Nasrid Palaces are a thing of sheer beauty. With three palaces in this collection, the ornate designs with circular patterns and colorful mosaics showcase different living periods.

DSCN1986 DSCN1988 DSCN1989 DSCN2011 DSCN2010 DSCN2007Heading onto what’s called the Partial area, this section contains a portico, gardens, the Rauda, the Palace of Yusuf III and the Paseo de las Torres along several towers.

DSCN2017 DSCN2018  DSCN2022 DSCN2025DSCN2041DSCN2047 DSCN2048DSCN2057 DSCN2062 DSCN2064 DSCN2065 DSCN2066 DSCN2073 DSCN2075 DSCN2076 DSCN2078The Generalife area was built as a leisure area for Granada’s monarchs, where beautiful gardens provided a pleasant escape from day to day living. This section includes the Alhambra’s lower and upper gardens and the Generalife Palace.

DSCN2081 DSCN2085 DSCN2092 DSCN2107As you can see, you can spend a good portion of your time here. And it’s well worth it!

Toledo: A City of Three Cultures

DSCN1722A short distance from Madrid, heading south, Toledo makes for a pretty good day trip. Founded by the Romans as a fortified city, Toledo carries the nickname the “city of three cultures,” due to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim populations that once had lived alongside each other for years. Like much of Spain’s southern region, this mountainside city has had its fair share of change over the centuries due to being take over by different rulers.

Toledo once had been an industry powerhouse too: everything from steel to silks and ceramics were produced here. Yet even today, this old’s city artistic and architectural legacy still attracts visitors. Plus, you can get to this UNESCO World Heritage site by car, train or bus.

DSCN1740If you’re heading to Toledo by car (I got there by bus), the hillside scenery along the route from Madrid (you travel down via the A-42 highway) is worth the “stop to take photos” scenario. It’s a panoramic view. Stare straight ahead in the distance and among this skyline you’ll find the Alcázar of Toledo, built as a stone fortress, then used as a royal palace, and then during the height of the Spanish Civil War was severely damaged. It was rebuilt and presently holds a museum and library.

Of course, you explore Toledo by foot. Very carefully. You’re walking up hills and on cobblestone streets. There are a number of churches, monuments and museums that are not badly far in distance from each other.

DSCN1756DSCN1752DSCN1754Inside the Church of Santo Tome, groups primarily come to view “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” a masterpiece by the artist El Greco (meaning “The Greek” in Spanish). El Greco, which is what he is referred to than his actual Greek name, spent the latter part of his life in Toledo. This quite large, oil painting hangs in a tight fit room, but from wherever you’re standing, you can take in all this painting. It’s based on a local legend involving a very pious man, and is divided into two sections.

DSCN1743DSCN1831El Greco was chosen to paint this masterpiece, which best replicates how the Spanish men looked in time this painting was created in the late 1580s. You can also spot El Greco’s self-portrait in the painting. He’s the third man from the left side.

DSCN1793Another landmark is the cathedral of Toledo, a beautiful 13th-century High Gothic cathedral that was built on top of the city’s former mosque. It’s considered to the best of this architectural style in Spain. If you walk up a street across from the cathedral, and hit just the right angle with your camera/smartphone lens, you can get a postcard snapshot like mine below.

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While walking along Toledo’s former Jewish Quarter, a thriving section up until the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, look down at the pavement. You’ll notice markers that are religious symbols, indicating that you’re following along the quarter.

DSCN1795DSCN1798 In this quarter, pay a visit inside the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue, considered to be the oldest synagogue in Europe that’s still standing. Seeing its interior might make you second guess this place had been built as a synagogue, as its appearance doesn’t reflect how many of them commonly look.

DSCN1814DSCN1820DSCN1819Designed by Moorish architects, the temple is was constructed using the Mudejar style (created for non-Islamic purposes). The floor plan consists of an unusual mix of aisles. There are a series of beams supported by octagon piers. Arches are graced with intricate designs, more in line with nature-inspired symbols than religious ones (my guide happened to point out a hard-to-find Star of David carvedon one beam). Now as a museum, the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue later went from being a temple to a monastery, and then was used as an armory and warehouse for a sword factory.   DSCN1818 DSCN1815One sweet find in Toledo is marzipan, a creamy confectionery made from almonds and sugar. It’s not hard to find a shop that solely offers this handmade treat. You can find it in its basic state or filled with chocolate and even shaped to look like little fruits or vegetables.

DSCN1763DSCN1751For a whole day or just half of one, it’s good to head to Toledo and explore its three cultures.