Travel tales and tips – Christmas in Toledo, Madrid and Seville

You may be thinking that it’s a bit late to post a blog about Christmas as the 25th of December has passed. Well, I am very happy to report that Christmas in Spain is far from over and doesn’t officially end until after the 6 of January. This is my little heaven, when every day is Christmas until January!

Let me stat by describing Christmas in Toledo where I spent Christmas eve and day. I stayed in a charming and characteristically old hotel called Enrico which I was happy to discover was practically next door to the majestic Cathedral of Toledo. I loved lying awake at night listening to the sounds of the cathedral bells ringing. I’m not sure how other people feel having the time told by a cathedral ringing bells for every stroke of the hour but I love it! For some reason I find it delightful and soothing. Christmas eve in Toledo is magical. They have the prettiest Christmas lights I have ever seen, including one sea of golden lights above your head that drapes gently down and continues all the way down the long windy narrow paved street. It was fun following the sea of lights above my head just to see where they led and I was not disappointed. The narrow ancient street lined with shops opened up to a large square full of hundreds and hundreds of locals and tourists enjoying the hundreds of Christmas lights. The trees were covered in lights and if you looked long enough they had hidden little lights that illuminated like little stars dropping from the heavens. It was a wonderful atmosphere, children wrapped snugly against the cold running around laughing, adults singing and dancing and one old man ad his grandson walking around singing and playing drums. Now that is how you celebrate Christmas! Be prepared though for a different approach to Christmas. Unlike Melbourne in Australia where shops stay open until midnight to accommodate last minute Christmas shopping frenzy, in Toledo all the shops and food places close at 4 pm. You might get lucky finding a MacDonald’s in the main square but who wants that when in Spain?? Christmas day is even more quiet as everyone is celebrating at home. That’s why we had to eat in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas day. Plan ahead and visit the small supermarket in Toledo . It has all your basic needs covered and you can even find gluten free chips. A couple of tuna cans and toasted Crips breads and you won’t starve.

Madrid prepares for an annual large parade for the 5th of January so even tough 25 December has passed, Christmas lights are still turned on every night and the festive spirit is very much alive. You may notice that some streets have more elaborate and prettier lights than others; that is because in Spain neighbourhoods pay for the Christmas decorations and some can afford to spend more than others. In Toledo, one street used recycled plastic bottles to create star shapes to decorate the strew. Budget cuts result in an ingenious idea and the  Christmas spirit continues to live despite lack of money.

Seville – for the first time in my life I saw a black man sitting on a throne with little children lining up to sit on his lap and ask for presents. It took me a minute to realise that he is supposed to be one of the three wise men who bring gifts at Christmas. In Spain Santa Claus is a relatively new tradition and the main gifts are delivered by the three wise men. So the lucky little children get two sets of Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToledo

Toledo

A sea of Christmas lights in Toledo with the majestic Cathedral illuminated in the background

Cathedral of Toledo a beacon of light in the foggy winter nights

Cathedral of Toledo a beacon of light in the foggy winter nights

Travel Tales and Tips – feeling old,missed trains and breathtaking Toledo views

I’m getting old. I know this because instead of being excited by the journey, I now feel like a grumpy old woman. I used to love airports, the organized chaos, the people from all over the world going to all places In the world. I used to love watching them wondering where they were going and the idea of a 14 hour flight thrilled me as the opportunity to spend more time in an aeroplane watching movies and looking at the clouds. Well, I have just barely survived a 14 hour flight followed by a 6.5 hour and then a 2.5 hour flight. Unable to sleep from the lack of leg room and concrete hard chairs, I spent my hours feeling the aches and pains of backache, picking at my food wishing the babies on board would stop crying. Then there was the stress of running around airports trying to find the right transit terminal, lining up to board the last  connection flight from Rome to Madrid only to realise they didn’t print out our boarding passes in Melbourne (my husband and I are traveling parts of Europe). I left my husband in line  and ran off to find the transit desk which was conveniently hidden right at the back of terminal behind a large crowd of people. Boarding passes printed, crisis averted. Now if I could just use the bathroom on the plane (hadn’t had time before) and get some food, I would be happy. Well, unfortunately as we hadn’t taken flight yet the water pressure hadn’t been activated so I had to ask the stewardess to help me out by pouring water over my soapy hands. I should have known that it was an unlucky omen for the flight, and my suspicions were confirmed when they lost my luggage somewhere between Rome and Madrid. Note to self: don’t fly with Alitalia again.

Finally in Madrid after almost 30 hours of travel, changing 3 planes in 3 countries, I put my university learned Spanish to good use by trying to find us the most thrifty way of getting to the old city of Toledo in Spain. After modestly blushing at the compliments of how good my Spanish is from the girls at the information desk (wouldn’t my professors be proud), I found the yellow express bus to Atocha train station and paid 10 euro for two tickets instead of the 30 euro taxi fare. I’m glad we took the bus which drove us through the beautifully decorated city centre of Madrid and were treated to an authentic traffic jam car horn concert. It was the background music to the giant Christmas  trees made entirety of lights. We got off at the train station which was also the last stop, and after some trouble found the correct ticket office. Toledo is a medium length journey of 30 mins on the express train and costs 10 euro per person each way  (I cleverly remembered to buy Return tickets). Unfortunately I was not clever enough to keep an eye on the time and the 20 minutes before departure flew by quickly while I ran around the large train station buying bottles of water,  couple of sandwiches and using the very clean and nicest bathroom I’ve seen (with a cheerful bathroom attendant-btw this costs 0.60 euro).

We ran to catch the train and threw our luggage into the scanning machine for the train station guards to check and asked for the platform for the train to  Toledo.

‘You mean the one scheduled to leave now? Platform 12, run! Run! Faster!’

So there I was running madly towards platform 12 dragging my hand luggage and shouting at my husband over my shoulder to run faster while the poor man was dragging a heavy suitcase and hand luggage. While I shouted at him to run faster the security guard was still shouting to me in Spanish ‘Run! Run faster!’

Unfortunately we could not run fast enough because the express train to Toledo closes boarding two minutes before departure. This information is written on the ticket in Spanish but I did not stop to read it in my rush to get water and food. So, if you ever catch the train to Toledo make sure you give yourself enough time to get through the security screening and you can sit in the waiting area facing the train platforms. You will also find bathrooms (not as nice as the ones just outside the train platforms area) and an overpriced kiosk where you can get a coffee and sandwiches.

Due to my inability to estimate time accurately, I left my husband guarding our luggage and ran back to the ticket office to buy another ticket to Toledo. It was the last train for the evening and left  at 9.50pm. After waiting 1.5 hours for our train we had a speedy 30 min ride and arrived at the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen! Too dark to take pictures but I will take some on the way back to Madrid.

There are taxis stationed outside the station and it will cost almost 9 euros to get driven to the old city centre in front of the cathedral. I was following the Toledo train station guards advice to avoid getting ripped off by taxis trying to find your hotel. Depending on which hotel you stay in Toledo, look for the largest landmark near it and get dropped off there. With Google aps you can easily make your own way to the hotel and save some money.

If you have the good fortune to arrive in Toledo at night, you will be greeted by the breathtaking sight of the Cathedral’s illuminated spier reaching up into the heavens. It is also beautiful to look at during the day when there is fog and makes it look like the Cathedral reaches right up into the clouds of heaven.

Until the next blog- Merry Christmas!

Travel Tales and Tips – The Preparation

Now, if you are like me and have not travelled extensively and want to try some independent travel then here are some tips I learned through trial and error based on my own experiences. I like to be prepared so I love to research my destinations; the history, the current social and political situation (stable/war etc), and all kinds of things like how long it takes to get from one city to the next, what kind of souvenirs I should I look out for and nice places to stay at that won’t overwhelm my budget. No 5 star travel for me unfortunately, all the lotto tickets I keep buying haven’t yet made a return on my investment.

1 -Travel guides are your friend

I like to prepare by reading a travel guide that will let me know a little about the history of the country and each city I visit, as well as all sorts of useful things like must see sights, city maps and so on. I have read a few different kinds like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides but my personal favourite is the DK series. It has beautiful illustrations of the cities, city maps, and a great synopsis of the history of the country and each city. It is very well laid out which makes it easy to find information while you are travelling. The down side is that to be so thorough, they also tend to be quite bulky and a bit heavy but I am happy to carry it in my backpack while travelling. If weight and lack of space becomes an issue, remember that you can always ask hotels for a map of the city and they often include major tourist sites and information.

2 – How to avoid fungal infections and scabies

A good friend of mine returned from a wonderful tour of the major cities in Europe with a bag full of souvenirs and an unexpected free souvenir from one of the hotels she stayed in. I could hardly believe her when she came back from her doctor’s clinic to tell me she had caught scabies. She seemed to think it was from the bed-sheets of one of the last hotels she stayed in at the end of her trip. Feeling slightly paranoid about catching some weird skin disease from a shower floor that hasn’t been cleaned properly or scabies from bed sheets that haven’t been washed well, I have armed myself with a pair of thongs (flip-flops for the American readers) to wear in the shower and a cotton bed-sheet that I can wrap around myself in a sort of sleeping bag fashion to avoid touching sheets. I also learned to take a small towel with me to drape over pillows – I learned that in Jerusalem as the pillowcases of one hotel I stayed at were a bit stained looking and yellow…

3 – Laundry bills

If like me, you have a budget to stick to and can’t afford to fork out an extra 100 euro to get your socks and undies cleaned by the hotel laundry service, do it the good old fashioned way. All you need is a decent hair-dryer. When stopping somewhere for more than one night, you can easily wash your clothes in the shower or bathtub and hang them on the side to dry overnight. To speed things along, especially when travelling in winter, use your hair dryer. Just make sure you don’t accidentally shrink your thick wool socks like I did..I washed them, let them air dry then put them in the dryer to get rid of the dampness which means I now have to wrestle them to fit on my feet. I feel like one of Cinderella’s stepsisters when I try to put on those socks…The best way to avoid smelly socks when travelling in winter is to wear thin cotton socks under your wool socks. The cotton socks will absorb any sweat, they can be easily washed and dried and your wool socks will not become smelly!

For my next post, I want to look at the pros and cons of booking online with different service providers like Hotels.com and Booking.com, as well as the benefits and drawbacks on using travel agents or contacting the company directly.

I hope that by sharing these little tips with you, you will have a wonderful stress-free journey!

Happy Travels!

 

Travel Tales and Tips

I am currently preparing for a fairly extended trip to Europe over the European Christmas and winter season. This year I will not be celebrating Christmas with family in the Australian fashion – outdoor BBQ, cold beverages and beer happily chilling in a large plastic tub full of ice, fighting gigantic flies for the right to eat the Christmas feast, having ice-cream for dessert (or if you’re not quick enough, sadly watching it melt in your bowl from the heat while politely pretending to listen to your neighbour…) You get the idea.

This year, I will be celebrating Christmas in Toledo – Spain. Why Toledo? Well, my husband and I are doing a tour of Spain so we thought we would arrive a few days earlier and spend them in this fascinating ancient city. Reading about Toledo in my favourite travel guide (DK Spain), it struck me that Toledo is like the Jerusalem of Europe. An ancient walled city that has been to Jews, Christians and Muslims for centuries. For those of you  who have read my other blog posts or my book ‘Not A Typical Tourist in Israel and Jordan’ know that I fell in love with Jerusalem, so it is not surprising that I should now be drawn to its sister city in Europe. I’m very curious to see what the similarities and differences between the two cities will be.

Preparing for my trip, I have been searching for and reading travel blogs about the destinations I am headed to. Most of them seem to be written by brave people who like to travel independently and stay in budget accommodations without knowing a word of the local language. I have found these blogs to be immensely useful but wanted to write a series of blogs that is also an honest review of the places I visit, the accommodation I stay at, the modes of transport I use, and of the tour companies I go with.

Personally, I like to make my travel as stress free as possible so I tend to combine organized tours with independent travel. For the first time ever, I have chosen to use the train system in Europe to get around as well as flying. I must confess that the idea of catching a train in a foreign country makes me hyperventilate with anxiety. I am so bad with directions, it is not at all unusual for me to catch the right number tram that is unfortunately going in the opposite direction, miss my train stop completely and end up at an unfamiliar and wrong station and generally lose my way…And this in a city I live in. One time I was asked by a lovely elderly couple visiting from Sydney how to get to a certain street in the city of Melbourne. I live in Melbourne. I had no idea what direction that street was even though I walked it often. I was so embarrassed I pretended I was also a visitor to Melbourne on a business trip…

So, in these blog posts you will find some hopefully helpful travel tips for the inexperienced traveler who likes the security and comfort of a travel group and some independent travel, some comfort on a budget (I don’t fancy cockroaches in hotel bathrooms or stained bed sheets or suspicious stains on carpets, and preferably a shower that works…) and some funny tales to amuse you.

Happy Reading!

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