Friday, October 21, 2016

Spain & Portugal - Day 18

Despite sunny skies, winter came earlier than expected. The mild heat from the sun was not enough to keep us warm for long, and we had to make frequent trips back to the hotel or to a cafe to keep ourselves warm as we explored this old city.

We started out "conquering" the city wall of Avila.

Entrance to city wall

 After climbing the strenuous steep stairs to go up the wall, the rest was a stroll....just relax and enjoy the tranquility and view.

Cathedral of Avila
The Cathedral of Avila was a 12th century Romanesque style cathedral. The structure was part of the city wall where the altar is set into the city wall itself. We can't enter the cathedral from here, but being able to witness how the cathedral and city wall intertwined was an interesting experience.

Plaza de Santa Teresa (also called Plaza del Mercado Grande)
Come to the Plaza de Santa Teresa in the evening and its a totally different atmosphere. It is the happening place to mingle and people watch. Cafes are packed and shops stayed open till 10pm. Oh...and our car was parked on one of the streets behind the Church of San Pedro (the brown building facing the plaza). Hope this helps!

From here, the bell tower of the Monasterio de la Encarnacion, the white structure with longish "holes" is clearly visible. The monastery is set outside the city wall and in the midst of residential. Besides being a must visit, since St Teresa of Avila is ultimately the star of Avila city, to be able to explore areas outside the walled part of Avila is an added bonus.

Finally, we decided that this "tower" that looks almost identical (in shape) to the St Paul's ruin in Macau was a good ending point for our "patrol" of Avila. The walk back to the main square was a little challenging as it crosses the residential part of the old city.

After some effort (due to lack of signage), we were back at the Plaza de Santa Teresa!

Plaza de Santa Teresa and Church of San Pedro
Though the pillar with St Teresa and the Church of San Pedro was unrelated, but their colour made an interesting contrast, and probably the remaining aged structure in this square.

Since the Church of San Pedro was closed, we head straight to the Monasterio de la Encarnacion, where St Teresa lived and had many mystical experiences, and left exploring the square for the night.

Bell tower of Monasterio de la Encarnacion, Avila

Saint Teresa of Jesus of Avila

In the garden of the Monasterio de la Encarnacion

At the age of 20, it was through this door that St Teresa of Jesus entered the convent. The bricks and the door has remained since 1535.

On the walls of the monastery are frescoes depicting St Teresa's experiences. This one was painted after her death depicting St Teresa and her niece, Teresita who entered the monastery when she was 12 years old.

St Teresa and niece, Teresita

"The Scourging of Christ at the pillar" was painted after St Teresa had this vision.

Below were the last words of St Teresa that reads "At last Lord I die as a daughter of the church".

As we continued to the upper floor for the museum, (sorry for the bad photo....our camera's last glorious service!!) it was at this staircase that the child Jesus appeared to St Teresa.

This painting which belongs to St Teresa's family is one that St Teresa has been looking at since young asking "Lord, give me this water".

The museum contains various relics used by the monastery or by St Teresa. Of particular interest to us was this statue with Christ covered in wounds. It was this statue that invoke St Teresa's great sorrow and compassion that her real conversion started.

The monastary was a good starting point for us to understand the life of St Teresa before we head out to a carmelite convent tomorrow where the incorrupt heart and arm of St Teresa was kept.

Though we would loved to visit the Convento de Santa Teresa, a convent built in the 17th century over the house where St. Teresa was born, and contains her ring finger and that of St. John of the Cross; we decided to spent some time exploring the residential part of Avila instead.

Maybe it is the time when families travel? The neighbourhood was rather quiet and sort of "deserted". There weren't many shops either, just a small supermarket. Anyway, still nice to roam around before heading back to the old city to visit the Cathedral of Avila (photo-taking is not allowed) before it closes for the day.

We were already starving from the walking and cold by 7pm. Last night, we chanced upon a restaurant that served fantastic beef stew. It was tucked away in a back street somewhere near the cathedral. Since we were at the cathedral, we decided to try our luck, and Viola...we managed to find it again!!

After dinner, we roamed around the old city for a little window shopping and bought the famous Yemas (egg yolk cakes) from the "Yemas de Santa Teresa", a 130 years old brand. The cake has a crunchy exterior and a melt-in-your-mouth interior. It has a unique taste but was quite sweet for us though. Anyway, it is still worth buying back for our folks back home.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Spain & Portugal - Day 17

Staying in a mountainous area means waking up to extremely fresh air and a splendid view from our room in Santa María de Guadalupe.

Breakfast was served in the dining hall. The spread was not extensive but sufficient. We especially loved the freshly made churros.

After breakfast, we finally got to take good look at the beautiful courtyard of the hotel (since we arrived late last night and the lights in the courtyard were really dim).

From this courtyard, there is a direct link to the monastery next door. Of course, it was no short cuts for guest visiting the Sanctuary-Monastery of Our Lady of Guadaloupe. But, it do provide good photography opportunity.

Here, at the main street is where visitor enters the sanctuary. The Sanctuary-Monastery of Our Lady of Guadaloupe is a massive structure that exudes captivating architectural beauty. It may be old and a little rundown, but it continues to mesmerise her visitors.

To fully understand the history of this place, we went for a guided tour. Unfortunately, it was not made known to us (and other non-Spanish speaking visitors) that the guide only speaks Spanish. We ended up going in and coming out of the sanctuary clueless plus frustration! Well, our consolation was to be able to see the black Virgin up close (not so close though).

Thereafter, we took a short walk around the village before preparing to leave for Avila (yes, we were here only for a night....such lovely place...what a waste).

Back at the hotel's courtyard, we met a lovely bride-to-be who came all the way from another state to be married in the Sanctuary the next day. From this, I'm sure you can imagine the draw that this Sanctuary have on her visitors....if only we could renew our marriage vow here. We were invited to her wedding....but we're leaving...that made our one night here even more regretful...( budget!).

Driving from Guadalupe to Avila old city was relaxing, and the imposing wall of Avila is visible from far making our search almost effortless.

The great wall of Avila

Entering into Avila!!

One of the entrances into Avila old city

The plaque at the top of the entrance

While driving to Avila was easy, searching for our lodging was a huge challenge! There're extremely limited parking spaces in the old city and it is like a maze with its many small streets. It took us almost an hour to finally find our hotel despite being near it all these while (no one we asked knew exactly where the street that the hotel was located was).

Then there is parking problem. We parked in one of the garage (it was below the big plaza) for an hour just to unload our luggage and check-in to the hotel, and that one hour already cost us a paella meal. To park overnight for 3 nights in the old city is unthinkable. Street parking would be our only option.

Being a blessed trip since day one, today was no exception. Not only did we find a street parking that's just 10 minutes walk away, it is a free parking lot for the next 3 days! It was unbelievable! No words can describe how grateful we were.

So, for those of you who were on the same tight budget as us, seriously I can't recall which street did we park in, but just drive out of the old city (don't drive out from the main entrance....there're some lots there but they aren't free and there's a slope to walk), and there are many street parking surrounding it. Good luck!

Friday, September 9, 2016

Spain & Portugal - Day 16

We planned to visit the Lisbon Aqueduct (Aqueduto das Aguas Livres) today before our journey back to Spain. According to the hotelier, there is no direct bus or tram from our hotel. We have to walk. According to the map, it was supposedly a 20 minutes walk. However, after walking for 20 minutes under a scorching sun, and still no where near it, we decided to drop it. After all, we had a tight schedule to adhere to today.

We travelled south of Portugal for our journey back to Spain. That means, we got to drive the Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge! It was said that this bridge is longer than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Franciso. Not sure about that. But, definitely looks identical except that this bridge is part is for cars and below is for trains!

After crossing the bridge, a short drive brought us to the Monument to Christ (Christo Rei).

This monument with a 28 meter tall Christ on the top was built in 1959 to thank God for sparing Portugal during WWII. On the first floor is a small art gallery. This picture caught our eyes...

An artistic impression of the Holy Family

From the first floor, we took an elevator to the top of the monument (82 meter high) to have a sweeping view of Lisboa city before continuing our journey to Evora to visit the Igreja de Sao Francisco.

City centre of Evora

Evora's city centre is very small but full of live. We reached Evora near 12 noon...bad timing. The church is closed for siesta for 2 hours! Despite our tight timeline, we didn't want to miss out on this church. So, we went for a light lunch (though we weren't hungry) to kill time and had a chestnut snack to kill more time!

Finally, it's time and here we were in the Igreja de Sao Francisco.

Main altar

An interesting expression of the suffering of Christ on His Passion

After seeing these pictures, you may be wondering why had we waited for 2 hours just to visit this church when seriously there isn't anything exceptionally special about it. Well, it was the Capela dos Ossos or Chapel of Bone that drew us there.

The above inscription at the entrance of the chapel reads "We bones that are here, we are waiting for yours".

If the inscription at the entrance sounds rather eerie and the idea of covering the interior of a chapel completely with the bones of 5000 people sounds gross and inhumane, it really wasn't once we understood the intention.

Built in XVI, the bones were taken from the graves of the town. It was built as a prayer and meditation on the human condition place of the Franciscans.

At the end of the chapel where the altar is lie the grave of Bishop Jacinto Carlos da Silveira, killed in 1808 by the French soldiers of Napoleon.

And at another far end of the chapel, the corpses of a father and son was hung there as it was believed to have been cursed by the dying wife/mother for ill-treating her to death (myth or fact?).

Due to the two hours delay (which we had no regrets), initial plan to visit another two interesting churches enroute to our destination in Spain had to be scrapped. So, the rest of the day was spent driving monotonously through freeways and country roads.

The excitement came when we were near our destination, Guadaloupe. We entered the El Escorial region at last light. It is a mountainous area, which means everywhere was pitch dark. Coupled with Spain's lack of good road signs, were still wondering till now how had we managed to find our place! Upon exit of the main road, we had to drive through a deserted village (those kind that appears in horror movies) and another populated village with no one in sight. At the end of this village is a road with either a left or right turn with NO SIGN BOARD to show where each direction heads to. With half a tank of fuel left (hadn't seen any petrol station for the past 3 hours!), at 7pm and no map or GPS, we were definitely panicky. But, our faith saved our night. At this critical moment, a group of children (not more than 10 years old) with two adults appeared. We grasped that opportunity to ask for direction. And guess what, the children were the ones who saved our night (the adults don't understand English and weren't able to help). We were hesitant at first....direction from children....they are so young, are they sure? Eventually, we took the leap of faith and viola, not only were we able to make it in time to top up our fuel before the one and only petrol station closes for the night, we even made it in time to top up some food at the only supermarket in Guadaloupe 10 minutes before they closed. It was indeed a blessed trip!

As recommended by many, we stayed at the monastery-converted hotel, Santa María de Guadalupe. Guadalupe is a very small village in the El Escorial region. The hotel was easy to find...can't miss it the moment we drove into the village. But getting to the parking is a little challenging.

Anyway, reception was friendly and here we were, room 218 as suggested in forum.

The heavy metal door definitely add to the historic atmosphere of this place! Love it.

Room 218 of Santa Maria de Guadalupe Hotel

It was said that this room used to be a chapel for the monastery, thus the humongous space and superbly high ceiling. It was a lovely room with lovely view except that it was very chilly given that it only has one heater to serve the whole room. We were shivering throughout the night.

The hotel was the most expensive among our lodging in Spain. We decided to go for it still partly because of its history and partly because a portion of the profit made goes to supporting the Franciscan Monastery next to it. So, it's money well spent.

The Authors