Sunday, April 19, 2015

Barcelona, Spain by Margot Justes




I’m working on the fourth hotel book, and this one is set in Barcelona. It is a city filled with art, amazing architecture and an incredible zest and appreciation for life.Barcelona is exciting, vibrant and the locals know how to enjoy themselves, they possess the joie de vivre that is hard to miss, and often times hard to find.

The architecture is unsurpassed, modern and old blends well together, and of course there is Gaudi-it is worth a visit to Barcelona just to see his work. It is unforgettable. I loved it so much that I posted a separate blog about his stunning and imaginative style. The amazing thing is that once you see it, you want to do it again, and again, simply because you probably missed the marvelous details the first time through. His work is beyond whimsy.

There are museums to be sure, Miro, Dali and Picasso have a foundation in Barcelona. The stunning architecture will take your breath away, everywhere you turn you see a magnificent building, from Gothic to Art Nouveau to the indescribable Gaudi treasures, to contemporary and everything in between. Landmarks abound.

At any given time stroll on La Rambla, and you’ll see locals and savvy tourists sit down in a cafe and enjoy a beer, tapas, coffee, along with a dish of green olives, or just stroll arm in arm on the wide avenue that is both romantic, hectic and invigorating. There are many souvenirs shops that line the famous paseo, all the kitschy tourist stuff, pottery, foods and other items made locally, along with entertainment, and all of it delightful.

The street is filled to capacity, and I for one at this stage in my life don’t like crowds, and if truth be told-never did-but I really rather enjoyed the lovely walk, and a stop for the obligatory delicious coffee. I had a wondrous adventure just walking down the street. You see people smile, nod their heads in acknowledgement as you stroll along as if in a romantic dream.

The city also boasts a beautiful coast line, and one of the biggest ports in Europe, along with some beautiful parks, even one designed by Gaudi.

Have I forgotten to mention the food-it is delicious-they create a mouth watering delight   with just potatoes. Okay, I’m Polish and happen to love potatoes, but the Patatas Bravas are truly yummy, roasted potatoes, a yummy sauce with a slight bite that you feel on the tip of your tongue. The excellent bread and incredible local hams would have kept me happy for a long time.

A huge array of cheeses, hams, breads, olives, an amazing selection of fish, all that is available in many tapas bars. The offerings are small, so you can visit many places and taste the amazing variety of appetizers. A delightful and delicious way to sample the local cuisine.

Shopping abounds on Passeig de Gracia, favorably compared to other famous boulevards with prices to match. I enjoyed the walk, and window shopping, the displays are imaginative and fun, and I was grateful that I travel light with little room for souvenirs.
That being said, I managed to buy a few small trinkets for family and friends, the souvenir shop at the Gaudi Casa Batllo was amazing, and yes-all my souvenirs came from that shop.

There are many hotels and as always prices range from low to high, it all depends on your budget. You will find delicious and reasonably priced tapas bars off the main tourist areas, but if you’re in with the tourist crowds be prepared to pay. I do a bit of research  before I leave, but I always allow for a tourist trap or two.

I booked the Casa Fuster Hotel, on Passeig de Gracia 132, on my first visit, a beautiful hotel reminiscent of Gaudi’s work, the service was superb, the rooms a good size, the breakfasts superb, and  the staff always eager to help with directions and available tours, they were friendly and caring. I hope to return and stay there again.

The second hotel was the Majestic, also on Passeig de Gracia 68-70, was a little more centrally located-by just a few blocks from Casa Fuster. That being said, I would rather walk the additional 4 or 5 blocks than stay at the Majestic again, lack of overall service, and a snippy registration cured me of ever staying there a second time.

The Majestic staff lost interest after I didn’t want to book a private car to Montserrat to the tune of 600Euros. After a discussion on booking a reasonable tour failed, a short 10 minute walk took me to a travel agency, where I was able to book a round trip ride for 29EU that would take me to the Montserrat  Monastery for the better part of the day. It is a trip not to be missed. I’ll post a separate blog on the location-it is in the mountains and it is magnificent.

I’m a breakfast person, and tend to eat the meal at the hotel to save on time, and the breakfast at the Majestic was outstanding. I couldn’t have asked for a more varied or delicious selection, and the coffee was delicious, but the lack of care and concern from the registration staff ruined any chance of my return to the hotel.

Barcelona has it all, and is definitely worth a visit or two, or three.

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com








Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tenerife, Canary Islands by Margot Justes












Tenerife, is the largest of the Canary Islands, and according to our guide has a population of about 800,000 people.

The capital and major port is Santa Cruz, that is where we docked and spent the day touring. It is a the major port of the island, and Santa Cruz has a population of about 220,000 residents.

It is bright, lively, like many tourist attraction there are beaches, high rises-at least high rises for a volcanic island-shops, gardens, restaurants along with many houses that have staircases that seem to climb up to infinity-a perfect venue for rest and relaxation. The climate and landscape are very diverse, and there are more things to see here than the other two islands I visited.

A short bus ride took us to the beautiful market, neatly laid out, one aisle after another offers produce, meat and sausages, cheeses, flowers, spices-you can stop for coffee and soak up the atmosphere. The items for sale seem never ending, and the aromas were divine, especially from the spice areas.

The next stop was the Archeological Museum that has impressive exhibits of the life and death of the Guanche society-the first inhabitants of the Canary Islands dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BC.

A fascinating exhibit that lists many of the plants found on the islands, reminiscent of the Audubon style, they were beautifully drawn and labeled and framed. There is a knob on each of the framed exhibits and when you pull on the knob you open a door, and it has a picture or drawing of the discoverer of the plant. Very neat indeed. This museum serves as a learning center for all the schools in the Canary Islands. 

Our next stop was La Laguna, a World Heritage Site. Designated a site because of the buildings, the intrinsic layout of the city, its colorful and distinctive architecture and beautiful patios. Smaller than Santa Cruz, it is more intimate and somewhat less touristy.

We stopped and visited another market square, this one smaller and older, but equally charming. Then on to the Cathedral and a couple of the famous interior patios. We had a few minutes to shop and stop for coffee. I opted for the coffee and a wonderful local delicacy, fried bread that I swear had custard inside, it was soft, gooey and delicious.

 Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
and coming in June A Hotel in Venice
www.mjustes.com



Sunday, March 22, 2015

Gran Canaria by Margot Justes











The second island we visited in the Canary Islands was Gran Canaria, an island much more open to the present, visible oil rigs along the shore, and a modern approach to tourists, high-rises everywhere and beautiful beaches for tourists and locals to enjoy. Colors of homes and buildings were varied and plentiful. It is larger than Lanzarote and seemed for more cosmopolitan.

The island is volcanic in origin, and part of the island was formed somewhere around 9 million years ago, give or take a million, or two, or three...suffice it to say, it is indeed old.

Maybe as far back as 500 BC, the Guanches first settled in Gran Canaria. A varied and often brutal history followed, the island was finally captured with the help of Queen Isabella I, and the conquest helped expand unified Spain.

Las Palmas, is the capital city, founded in 1478, the history is simply amazing. It is a vital sea port, where about a thousand ships visit the port a month; anything from fuel ships, to cargo and cruise ships, and all sizes in between. 

Gran Canaria is touristy, and commerce seems to be thriving. The island is far greener than Lanzarote and doesn’t quite leave such a distinct and memorable impression.  It is more commercial, still exotic but ready for the summer onslaught of tourists. It is known as a “Miniature Continent” because of the different climates and landscapes found in a relatively small, round island that is approximately 50 km in diameter.

Whereas Lanzarote was a sleepy, quaint village style of an island, with an unforgettable landscape, Gran Canaria was lively, exuberant, celebrates Carnaval in a grand style, and
is ready for tourists even in late October. The cultural side is not at all neglected, and the Museo Canario, is an important and incredible archeology museum that depicts the history of the archipelago.

There is the potential of oil development, and several rigs were already in the port. In Tenerife, I later found out that the locals are opposed to the plan, and the prospect of the oil rigs occupying their ocean coast, but as our tour guide indicated, Madrid, the seat of political power thinks otherwise.

We took a hair raising bus ride to Cruz Tajeda (Cross of Tajeda), up 4,800 ft.  The roads are really narrow, the curves many, and every time we came upon a bend, the bus driver sounded his horn-because the bus could not be seen from the other side, and the road wasn’t big enough to share even with the smallest vehicle, and the bus wasn’t big to begin with. The views were fantastic, we even caught a glimpse of a kitchen of a modern cave dweller, the hole was small and it was too dark to take pictures.

We saw two rock formations that were supposedly worshipped by the Guanches, the first cave dwellers of the area. They, like the ancient Egyptians embalmed their dead, for a safe passage to the new life.  The next island of Tenerife, we saw some of the mummified remains in a museum.

As many know, cruising is my preferred way to travel now, and sometimes spending a day in one port is never nearly enough, but it gives me a glimpse of the area that in many cases I would not have had. Happy travels!

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lanzarote, Canary Islands by Margot Justes















Lanzarote is a volcanic island that dates back about 15 million years ago. Located on the African Coast it is uniquely part of Spain as are the other 6 Canary Islands, and yet border the African Continent. I only visited three.

You can tell immediately that it is a volcanic island, the terrain is pure black, and there is a crunch beneath your feet because you’re walking on tiny volcanic pebbles. This island has more than 300 volcanoes, and perfect weather year round, it is eco friendly and as a result it is a great tourist destination, it’s perfect for tourists looking for serenity and an unimaginable landscape.

The history is rich and goes back to Greek writers like Homer, Plato and Plutarch. The first known inhabitants were the cave dwellers Guanches who arrived somewhere in the 1st or 2nd century BC.  The first European visitor was Lanzarotto Marcello, who settled in the early 14th century. My guess is that is why the island is called Lanzarote. By the end of the 15th century, Spain had conquered all seven islands, and to this day they remain uniquely Spanish.

The first thing you notice is the black soil, the second is that all the houses are painted white, the doors and window trim must be either painted brown or green, or if you live by the sea blue. No other colors are allowed on the island.

There is only one high rise, or what is considered a high rise by locals-maybe 12 stories-rising like a lone needle from afar-they are no longer allowed to be build anything tall because of the possibility of volcanic eruptions. 

There is a magnificent cactus garden designed by a local resident and much beloved artist, Cesar Manrique. According to our guide, he is said to be the man who gave Lanzarote a future filled with potential and hope. The garden is designed in a quarry, it has the feel of a Roman theatre, surrounded by volcanic rock, iron gates, steps leading down, up, and long narrow passages, it is modern and totally captivating. It houses over 1000 species of cactus, along with a few of Manrique’s mobiles. The garden is truly breathtaking, modern, functional, so peaceful that you never want to leave.

There is a café on top with amazing views to the gardens below, and alongside the café a few steps down is a small gift shop. The coffee was delicious,
and the view from the cafe sublime. At the time that we were there the phone lines were down, and people couldn’t charge their purchases, they had some lovely books on the design and history of the garden. I have never seen a design like this before, it’s one of the most unique places I have visited-I took picture so I can share them with you.

The tour also included a visit to Cesar Manrique’s house, designed by him on 5 volcanic bubbles, basically big holes in the volcanic land. He used each bubble to create wonderful open spaces, sitting options, each one unique and vibrant. All were connected by narrow passages, painted a bright white.  He included a pool, small dance floor, sitting rooms, all were open to the environment, with plants, creative lamps, a magical place, he even had what would for us pass as a barbeque grill.

His own art collection is now part of the museum as well. He is much beloved in the area, and our tour guide pointed out several times that he was killed in a car accident, she even pointed to the exact spot on the roundabout, as we were heading to visit his home.

As an indirect result Lanzarote has a brand new highway system that is efficient and much safer. According to her there were many deaths on the old roads. There are no traffic lights but roundabouts are everywhere. It is a small community, deeply rooted to the volcanic earth, and Cesar Manrique helped bring that closeness about. Cesar Manrique was instrumental in making the people of Lanzarote aware of their unique and wondrous heritage.

We also visited an agricultural museum, El Patio. To call it a journey to the past would be perfect. The museum houses farming equipment that dates back to the 1840’s. We were treated to local goat cheese, green olives, homegrown tomatoes, along with crackers and the local wine. After which we fed the chickens, rooster and one peacock the leftovers, they patiently waited for us to finish.

A charming place, although I found the scarecrows dressed as the local old farmers, sitting in a dilapidated, run down old house that was dimly lit downright eerie.

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Cartagena, Spain by Margot Justes


I love the Spanish cities I have visited in the past-all unique and all beautiful, and Cartagena, located in the Region of Murcia was no exception. 

A long maritime past and many cultures have left an imprint and a rich heritage that the locals are very proud of, and are hoping the rest of the world will soon discover. It is a city with a spectacular waterfront, and recently discovered Roman ruins that date back about three thousand years.

The Roman Theatre is a must see, along with some terrific Art Nouveau architecture, like the Grand Hotel, the Casino and City Hall to name just a few.  According to our guide, the ruins have seriously put Cartagena on the tourist map, and that is excellent news.
Funds are needed for additional architectural digs and discoveries. As recently as 1987 they found remnants of the Punic wall, and other treasures that date back to Hannibal.

The question of further digs is twofold, there are houses, businesses, and parks that rest on potential archeological treasures, and many who live on those sites would prefer to continue to do so, while others want the excavations to continue. It is not so easy to start digging, yet the sense of history and preservation is desirable, and besides ancient ruins tend to bring tourists in, and of course that builds the economy, but as always there are many sides to every issue.










Along with the recent discoveries, fortunately for Cartagena, they have a wonderful moderate climate, reasonable prices and lovely beaches to motivate the tourist industry. 
The development of the industry is still a work in progress, few tourist shops, except for the usual Flamenco dolls and the obligatory Cartagena stamped stuff.

However, there is progress if the one shop I visited is anything to go by. Our guide mentioned that the wine produced in the region was quite good, and recommended one store that would carry it. I looked for others in the main square but couldn’t find any. What I found instead was the glorious paseo, the wonderful Spanish tradition of a leisurely stroll on the boulevard. It seems everyone was out and that included the family pets.

The Submarine Shop sold some excellent local wines, tomato jellies, along with beautiful locally made pottery, and a few wine related trinkets. That was the only store I fund that sold locally produced items, reasonably priced and the pottery made for some beautiful gifts.

I also discovered a local liqueur, simply called Licor 43. The secret formula has 43 ingredients,  chief among them is citrus, fruit juices, with a hint of vanilla. It is luscious, and it is available on Amazon. I’m beginning to think everything is available on Amazon.

The owners were friendly and eager to expand their tourist trade, and were excited about their product. I was told that soon they will ship wines internationally, and they looked forward to growing their business.

Our tour guide went beyond the normal tourist offerings, and made sure we learned about his city’s important heritage and recently discovered ancient past.

There is a plaza just down the street from the beautiful waterfront, and I sat down in a cafe and enjoyed my obligatory coffee and the view. 

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by Margot Justes










It is no secret I love cruising, for one it’s simpler and easier at this stage in my life than packing and unpacking, lugging suitcases from place to place. On the ship I unpack once, granted you only see a little bit, but at least it is a taste, and sometimes a day is enough.

On the third day at sea, the captain announced that tomorrow morning between 4 and 5 in the morning we would be crossing the Strait of Gibraltar,  and the Rock would be visible. I scheduled a wake-up call for 4:00, I didn’t want to miss it a second of this event. Yes, I know it’s just a rock, but what a magnificent one.

The Strait of Gibraltar connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.
It is largely believed that the Neanderthals considered it home as far back as 125,00- years ago, and as late as possibly 30,000 years ago. The history is significant, but on this trip, I was only going to see the big rock, not the tunnels and passageways, nor the flora and fauna.

I didn’t know what to expect, when you’re in the open sea, it’s pitch black at night, sometimes you see an island, dim lights twinkling in the distance, another cruise ship heading to a port, or a freighter chugging along, but darkness is routine. We were moving toward the Atlantic in November, cruise ships were heading somewhere warm, just like our ship was doing-the final destination was Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

I thought I’d be the only one out on deck, not so, many other souls were up, many were in pajamas, sweat shirts, comfort clothes fit for the occasion. For all of us the first call was to the ever present coffee machines. The crew was up, and along with the coffee a continental breakfast was served while we all awaited the big rock. The anticipation was great.

Even in the dark and the huge gap between the ship and the rock, it was still a monstrous hunk of stone, and even with lights twinkling everywhere, it was an eerie spot.

At five ten, we crossed the straits, and indeed the big pile of rock was there, it is huge even from a great distance. I have a couple of pictures mostly of what looks like a massive dense space surrounded by light.

After the crossing we were on the Atlantic Ocean, bound for Agadir, Morocco-tomorrow’s stop. As the saying goes there was quite a bit of motion from the ocean once we crossed from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

Proof of the movement were the bags placed on the landings. Delicately phrased, people call them barf bags for a reason. Usually when the bags come out, I expect some pretty rough seas, and they didn’t disappoint.

It is really strange walking on deck when it’s windy and the seas are rough-it feels as if you either have lead feet or are floating on air. I lasted 20 minutes before I gave up, and actually had to sit down and rest for a few minutes. I was not alone on deck, there were a couple of other souls floating on air, or not, depending on the wind.

For the afternoon, the captain predicted fifteen feet swells, the bags were firmly in place and that included the elevators; otherwise it was life as usual on board ship. They believe in being prepared, and you know it’s serious when the crew couldn’t walk in a straight line-their  sea legs were firmly in place. 

Cheers,
Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks
www.mjustes.com