Travel: Spain, Portugal a prescription for an exotic vacation

Recently, three members of my family and I spent 16 days on vacation in Spain, Morocco and Portugal. We flew from the Minneapolis airport to Philadelphia, and then boarded our overnight flight to Madrid, Spain. Here we were joined by 45 more travelers in our Trafalgar tour group, along with our English-speaking tour guide and bus driver.

Madrid is a very beautiful city with more than 30 parks and gardens, and has a population of approximately 3.3 million residents. Many families have a second summer home in the mountains near Madrid. In the city is the world’s second-largest bull ring stadium, that holds 24,000 fans, and a soccer stadium that holds 82,000 people.

Driving through the countryside, we saw thousands of acres of olive groves, planted way up onto the mountainsides. Olives are harvested in December and January. Plastic sheets are laid on the ground under the trees; the trees are shaken by hand or by machine, and the ripe olives fall to the ground.

In Granada, Spain, we saw the beautiful Alhambra Castle and gardens. Toledo, Spain, is home to 50 churches and cathedrals — thus the expression, “Holy Toledo.”

The Rock of Gibraltar could be seen at a distance as we were driving along the Mediterranean Sea. It was near here where we boarded a ferry to cross the Strait of Gibraltar from Costa Del Sol, Spain, to Morocco, Africa.

Morocco is one of Africa’s most popular travel destinations — a mosaic of Arab and Berber cultures. Traveling from the ferry to Fez, Africa, we saw more olive trees, strawberry fields, sugarcane and vegetable gardening. Agriculture is the main industry. Some farm work is done with bigger farm machinery, and others do the work by hand with the help of a donkey and cart.

Many travelers spend time at the Medina in Fez. When you enter the Medina through the famous Gate of Bab Boujeloud, you are taken 1,000 years back in time. The Medina consists of indoor and outdoor markets in narrow, unending streets, where merchants are selling dates, spices, rice, fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers, scarves, rugs and textiles. The shopkeepers use donkeys to bring in their merchandise for sale, and for hauling out their garbage.

A special treat in Morocco was visiting a Berber family home. The Berber homes are built of straw and clay or cement. The first room we entered in the house was the stable for the cow and donkey. From there, we went upstairs to the family living quarters. This family consisted of the mother (the father had died recently), one son and five daughters. The mother and daughters served us homemade flat bread dipped in honey and olive oil.

The daughters demonstrated how they made the bread, and the mother showed us how she made butter in a quart-sized tin shaker. She also demonstrated how she poured mint tea from a teapot, held high in the air, without missing the tiny cup on the table. Although some Berbers are not educated, they are very happy, contented people.

Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco, with a population of 5 million people. Some of our evening entertainment there — along with a meal — included musicians, singers, magicians and belly dancers. An amusing side note about that meal: I asked the waiter for a table knife. He was carrying a pile of dirty dishes. He took a previously used knife from the dirty pile, wiped it on his pants leg, and handed it to me to use! Yummy!

From Morocco, our bus was again driven to the ferry for another crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar and on to Portugal. Before the bus was put on the ferry, authorities checked it to see if there were any Moroccan stowaway teenage boys under the bus in the frame, hiding, wanting to escape their country and get over to Spain. The police found three boys under our bus — two ran off, and one was put in a waiting police car.

Tourism is the biggest industry in Portugal, followed by vegetable gardening, corn, olive groves and cork trees. Cork tree trunks are stripped down every nine years. The bark then reproduces itself. Blue-and-white glazed tile is used on the outside and inside of houses in Lisbon. Castles and monasteries are prominent in the Lisbon area; also beautiful high-rise apartment buildings. It was in Portugal where were were entertained by the famous Flamenco Dancers.

Fatima, Portugal, was another interesting city on our trip. It was here that Our Lady of Fatima appeared to three shepherd children. The shrine is one of the most famous landmarks in worship today, drawing thousands of pilgrims from all over the world each year.

Two weeks before we arrived in Portugal, a devastating forest fire had destroyed thousands of acres of trees and buildings. Several roads were still closed in the area. One hundred people died in the fire — 50 people died in their cars, trying to escape.

A fun feature of Trafalgar Tours is the “Hidden Treasure,” a secret spot chosen by the travel guide. Avila, Spain, was the spot our guide chose. Avila, a walled city, is about 70 miles northwest of Madrid. Construction of the massive walls began in 1090 and continued for nearly 300 years. The Wall of Avila surrounds the old city center as it was laid out in the Middle Ages. The wall runs about 2 miles around the old city, averaging 50 feet tall and 10 feet thick. It is protected by nine gates and 90 evenly spaces round towers. Inside the wall, we saw the historic Cathedral of Avila and several Romanesque churches in the city center.

Our round-trip European excursion started in Madrid, Spain, and ended in Madrid — where they call police tickets “prescriptions.” Luckily, we didn’t get any prescriptions while we were there — just miles and miles of smiles and good times.