A little more of Madrid

With the ECCMID conference over I was left with a day and a bit to finish exploring Madrid.

There are many museums in Madrid, and I thought I should visit at least one. My choice was not the extremely popular and well renowned Museo National del Prado; instead I went to visit the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (also very well regarded) and solely because I wanted to see Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII.

I wasn’t disappointed; it’s actually quite a small painting.

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I also got to view many more famous paintings and works by famous artists.

For example – Rembrandt’s self portrait.

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You will also find paintings by the greats – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet, Manet and Moreau- all in the one room (room 32)! It was fantastic, what a treat!

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Renoir

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van Gogh

I walked a little more of the city; there are some very nice green spaces.

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On my last morning in Madrid, I finally made it to the royal palace. But before I got inside, I was able to witness the changing of the guard.

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What a wonderful place. It is very opulent and not hard to see where the Spanish spent some of that gold brought back from the Americas. There were no photos allowed in the main apartments of the palace (Google images for Madrid Royal Palace, and you will be amazed), but the main central staircase is ok.

The gardens around the Palace are lovely too!

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I found a few more Meninas too:

Holy Toledo – a visit to the historic town in España!

Part 2 of my day trip from Madrid.

After a couple of hours in Segovia, it was back on the bus to Toledo (south of Madrid). What a view from above the city.

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A very interesting old city, located at the top of a hill (we took 6 escalators up to the main city) high above the plains of Castilla-La Mancha. Toledo is a walled city and known as the “City of three cultures” as Christians, Muslims and Jews lived here together for centuries. Toledo was also the capital of the Visigothic kingdom of Hispania following the fall of the Roman Empire. Toledo is well known for its quality steel and sword making (today there is not such a great call for quality swords, but the city has made swords for movies and TV shows such as Lord of the Rings, 300 and Game of Thrones. The city was listed as a UNESCO site in 1986.

After some lunch and a little free time, we headed up to the cathedral.

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The present cathedral dates from the 1220’s as it was rebuilt after the church preceding it burnt down. Prior to that it was a mosque, and before that the Visigothic Cathedral. Yes, it is another awesome church in Europe, and it is of course unique with many wonderful features (including paintings by El Greco who lived in Toledo for 37 years before he died in 1614),

but one thing in particular made this cathedral stand out.

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The Tesoro (or Custody of Enrique de Arfe) – is made up of 18kg of pure gold (the first gold that Christopher Columbus brought back from the Americas) and 183kg of silver, with myriad precious gemstones and some 260 statuettes. Made in the 16th-century, this processional colossus gets out once a year for the Feast of Corpus Christi, when it is paraded around the streets of Toledo.

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Toledo was an interesting town, and deserves more than 1/2 a day –

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The city’s coat of arms – the two headed eagle

Both the cities of Segovia and Toledo deserve more time, but I am so thankful I did this tour; it was great! If ever you are in Spain, don’t miss Segovia or Toledo!

 

 

Segovia – a little town with a lot of history in España

After 2 days wandering around Madrid, I thought I needed something more interesting to do. I decided a day tour full of history and culture would be just the thing. This is the tour I took (recommended). I took a day trip to the UNESCO listed towns of Segovia and Toledo (blog post to follow on Toledo).

Before the tour started, I was already enjoying myself. I had caught the metro to Las Vestas and when I exited the station, right there is the Plaza de Toros; the bullfighting arena. The arena can hold 24,000 spectators and even has its own chapel and hospital (for when things don’t go the way of the bullfighters I guess).

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First stop on the tour was Segovia (northwest of Madrid in the Castile and Leon region) – a walled city dating back to before Christ.

Apparently Segovia was originally a Celtic possession, but control later passed to the Romans. Segovia was UNESCO classified in 1985.

All the buildings in Segovia have a unique finish; it’s very ornamental and you won’t see it anywhere else except for this region. To hide the flaws of the mortared finish they decorated the finishes. They are beautiful:

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There are 3 notable monuments in Segovia. The first is the Roman aqueduct.

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This is over 2000 years old, has never been restored, so stands as it has always been and was in use up until the 20th century. At its highest point it is 29 metres tall and 818 metres in length, with 170 arches. The aqueduct is constructed using about 25,000 granite blocks and has no mortar holding them in place. Awesome!

The 2nd great thing in Segovia is the Alcazar (the castle), which sits between the rivers Eresma and Clamores and was inhabited by the kings (and queens) of Castile.

This is a real fairytale castle, as it was the castle for the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Snow White castle.

Isabella I (also known as Isabella the Catholic – Isabella of Castile) was crowned here.

It is also the place where she met with Christopher Columbus before sending him on his way to India when he ended up discovering the Americas (Isabella also financed Columbus’s journey by selling her jewels). There’s not much to this building really, and it’s smaller than you might expect, but definitely worth a visit.

There are some great views to be had too.

The 3rd thing of note in Segovia is the Cathedral, a gothic style Roman Catholic Cathedral built between 1525 and 1577. We didn’t get to go inside, but it’s an awesome building.

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Segovia was amazing and definitely worth a visit.

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What a view!

España – 2 days exploring Madrid, Spain (part 2)

Day 2: A bit more exploring Madrid

Today I did a bit of training to get to various places, I found the metro very easy to use (and a tourist ticket is the way to go for a visitor). There are 12 different lines, so you can get anywhere within the city relatively easily. My line was No. 5.

On my way to visit the museum I was intending to visit, I passed the Banco de España, a beautiful example of 19th century Spanish architecture:

In the end I didn’t make it to any museum (perhaps I had my fill while I was in Italy, I just couldn’t get motivated – and it was such a beautiful day); instead I visited a park – Parque del Retiro.

Madrid-21The Parque del Retiro was originally part of the royal grounds and in 1767 the aristocracy were permitted entry. It was another hundred years before the gates were opened to the general public.

The park is huge (at 125 hectares, one of the largest in the city) and very relaxing, even if there are plenty of other people around, you can find somewhere to sit, ponder, have a picnic, snooze, play with the kids, whatever.

I found myself having lunch here, by the lake that once was used to perform mock naval battles. It dates from 1631. Today you can hire a row boat and cruise the lake.

After my late lunch (it was after 4 before I left the park), I explored a little more and did a little shopping (couldn’t resist a pair of Spanish sandals – it was so hot, I needed them! Don’t tell my husband) around Porta del Sol (“Gateway of the Sun”).

Madrid-55This square is actually oval shaped and has 10 streets radiating from it. I found some interesting things within the square: the statue of Carlos III (above), the bear climbing the arbutus tree (the symbol of the city):Madrid-16and a Spanish mariachi band performing:

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On the way home I walked part way along the Gran Via (a Parisian style boulevard 1315m long) which was begun in 1910, but not completed until 1940.

Madrid-18300 buildings were demolished and 14 streets disappeared to make it happen. There are still some architecturally fabulous buildings along this street.

At the end of the Gran Via is the impressive Metropolis building.

As I have wandered around Madrid, I have found these Spanish Ladies throughout the city. All are different and after doing some research I discovered there are 90 of these Meninas, created by artist Antonio Azzato in fibreglass. I thought they were pretty cool, so here is a selection.

España – 2 days exploring Madrid, Spain (part 1)

I’m back in Europe!

The European Congress for Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) has presented me with a wonderful opportunity to do a little bit more exploring of the world. [For those who don’t know, my real job is working in medical microbiology]. This year ECCMID is being held in Madrid, Spain and I have been very fortunate (but have worked hard) to be able to be here. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore for a few days before the conference started.

Day 1:

I am staying about a half hour out of the city (out near the airport), so I caught a metro train into the city centre. I hopped off at the Opera station and wandered a little

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before I did my usual thing of doing a city sightseeing hop-on-hop-off bus tour.

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There were 2 loops you could do, but I only did the one for historical Madrid. This took quite a long time the traffic is crazy busy and we were at a standstill for quite a long time (hence why I didn’t do the second loop).

The botanical gardens looked good, so that was my first hop off stop. It cost €4 to get in, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, so very worthwhile.

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Spring has sprung in Spain, so there was an excellent display of flowering tulips.

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I also saw some great bonsai

My 2nd stop was the royal palace (Palacio Real); I’d read about this and it looked really interesting. Unfortunately, when I went to buy my ticket I was told the palace was closed for the week (Bummer!), but I could get into the armoury for €5 if I wanted. I was most interested in looking through the grounds rather than the armoury, but I went in anyway. So glad I did.

Madrid-11Madrid-12The palace is impressive from the outside and the pictures I saw on inside looked amazing.

The armoury was fantastic- I was so impressed. The body amour of the soldiers and the armour plating for the horses were amazing – these were works of art, so much detail and excellent craftsmanship. The same can be said for the swords and pistols. Most of the armour dated from the16 century. Unfortunately no photos allowed, but Google images for Madrid royal palace armoury and you will see what I mean.

When I came out of the armoury, I encountered this peacock.

Madrid-14He was beautiful, I’d had never been so close to one, and was able to get a close look at his feathers.

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There was plenty of walking thereafter, so many sights to see, and I took plenty of photos.

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Italia – A visit to Pompeii

We finally had a lovely, sunny day to do some sightseeing on our trip to Italy the day we went to Pompeii. I have always wanted to go to Pompeii since I learnt about it in history when I was at school. The tale of what happened is legendary; what an intriguing place and history.

 

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Mt Vesuvius – standing quietly at the moment overlooking the ruins of Pompeii

Pompeii, along with Herculaneum and surrounding areas were buried under about 6 metres of volcanic ash and pumice when Mt Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. It is such a fascinating story; what did the people of those towns think and feel on that fateful day, on 24th August 79? How did the 8,000 – 10,000 inhabitants of Pompeii live? What were their everyday lives like?

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The remains of one of the many bakeries

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A penis in the pavement pointing the way to the brothel

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Pictures of what’s available in the brothel.

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Now this is a rock hard bed!

Pompeii lay abandoned until it was first rediscovered in 1599 and remained relatively untouched until 1748 when explorers looking for artefacts found that the ashes of Mt Vesuvius had acted as a wonderful preservative. Pompeii is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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While excavation is limited these days – this was happening in the bathing area

The archaeological site that has developed over the past 300 or so years is simply amazing.  The site is vast (an enthusiast could spend days here), with apparently only about two thirds of the 170 acre area having been excavated. While there is still more to discover, what has been unearthed so far is unlike anything else you will see.

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The streets were wide enough for chariots, and are deeply grooved as a result. The stepping stones provided access for pedestrians

The small theatre (Odeon)

The small theatre

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How impressive are these columns?

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At the bottom of the hill, where the poorer people lived.

We did a half-day tour from Naples (and while this was great, the tour guide and information provided was excellent), for me it wasn’t enough. If you just want a taste of Pompeii, then a half-day tour is well worth it. If, however, you are more like me and hungry for more information and keen to see more and discover more on your own, then do this trip independently (it is totally do-able).

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ITALIA continued – Napoli (Day 16 & 17)

Leaving Roma behind, we travelled next to Napoli (Naples), again on a fast train; the journey took just over an hour.

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At almost 300kph (we were slowing down coming in to Napoli) – definitely a fast train

We arrived in to Naples and the weather was fine. We were keen to do some exploring. Once we arrived at our accommodation (very nice room):

NapoliRoomand settled in, we determined to set out and wander around. Of course, the heavens decided to open up and it rained; proper rain, not just a drizzle or light, bearable rain; this was “prepare to get wet” type of rain. It didn’t stop us though; we just rugged up and put up the brollies.

Trudging around in the rain probably is not the best was to see any city, but I don’t think it added to the appeal of Naples. My main reason for staying in Napoli was as a base to visit Pompeii (I’ll cover that in my next post).

 

Walking the streets of Naples is definitely an interesting experience – the things you see:

and the washing hanging out to dry:

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and some churches and some unexpected frescoes (you never know what you will find when you walk around a city):

Some of the things we did manage to see in Napoli included:

  • the medieval fortress, Castel Nuovo (13th century) with its 5 towers located in front of Piazza Municipio and right by the harbourside port.

Quite impressive:

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The castle’s entrance

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As we were leaving – I saw this!

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How’s this for a door? Isn’t it wonderful?

I really did want to visit catacombs whilst we were in Italy – so we did a guided tour here – and it was fascinating. San Gennaro is the patron saint of Napoli and was at one time buried here. There are no skeletal remains here any more as they were removed during the French occupation and removed outside the city walls. These catacombs date back almost 2 thousand years, exists over several levels. The graves sites were fascinating and the frescoes were in great condition considering their age. If you happen to ever visit Napoli, I would recommend a visit to the catacombs.

– we did this at the end of a very long day and I can say it was very much worth the 8euro admission price. The museum is open from 9:00am until 7:30pm – and we stayed until closing; there is a lot to see.

Like some very impressive marble statues:

and some impressive mosaics:

The Neapolitans appear to be obsessed with sex and the penis:

Some other highlights from the museum:

There are some interesting aspects to Napoli and plenty to see, but I found this city the least appealing of all the places we visited in Italia. The traffic is exceptionally crazy – worse than anywhere else in Italy; and if you know anything of Italian traffic, you will appreciate my meaning. The city is also dirty, with lots of rubbish about, rather “unclean” there is a lot of graffiti, it’s noisy and I felt just a little uncomfortable – perhaps the time of year and the weather didn’t help, but it was almost like the Napoletano took no pride in their city. I also found eating out a more difficult experience in Napoli and the waiters tend to just take what they think you should give them as a tip – so be aware. At one restaurant we were told they wouldn’t take a card (luckily we had some cash on us), but when the waiter returned with the change he just kept the 4euro in his hand and claimed it as “service”. Of course, not everywhere was like this (we got caught out twice though) and we had an exceptionally nice dinner at Pulcinella Casoria.

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great atmosphere and great food

Putting this slight inconvenience aside though, we still enjoyed our limited time in Naples.

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Ah, Roma, Italy 🇮🇹 (part 3) – the rest of Roma

In Roma, I did invest in a Hop-on-hop-off bus ticket (which I highly recommend for any city you visit; it’s a great way to get your bearings and to see what the city has to offer – and you can go back and see what you’re interested in later); we spent an afternoon doing a full loop of the city. It also offers great photo opportunities.

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Previously a stadium, now housing

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The Forum

We did do an awful lot of walking in Roma and after the extensive walking we did in the Vatican, we ventured out and explored, pretty much just following our noses. We managed to visit:

the Trevi fountain,

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the Pantheon,

Piazza Navona (which we later returned to and took a look at the underground, where the remains of the Stadium of Domitian exist).

Our last full day in Roma (and it rained all day) we visited the church that sits at the top of the Spanish Steps – Trinita dei Monti.

We walked aimlessly through Villa Borghese park – saw some famous people:

We went to the Villa Medici – guided tour only available.

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There is so much to see in Rome – it’s a big, old city. Here’s a few random shots:

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One other thing we managed to do, and that was do a pasta making class at a local restaurant. It was great fun and I can’t wait to try making my own.

Because it rained so much, we were a little limited in what we were able to see and do in Roma and we didn’t get to see The Forum or Palatine Hill. Maybe next time (I did throw a coin in the Trevi fountain after all)!

And just because I like squirrels – I’ll sign off this post with an Italian squirrel:

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Ah, Roma, Italy 🇮🇹 (part 2) – a visit to the Colosseum

What is Rome’s most identifiable site? I think everyone could recognise the Colosseum when shown a picture.

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We caught the metro down to this most famous stadium. As you step out of the metro station, there, looming large right in front of you is one of the best known ancient monuments still standing. No matter how many pictures you see of this ruined building, it’s just not the same as seeing it person. The Colosseum is literally awesome!

I am glad I did not book in advance for this one. As it happens, the first Sunday in the month and the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are all free to enter. And as an added bonus, it wasn’t raining (as it did every other day we were in Roma).

We arrived just before 9am, and there was already a huge line to get in. We were offered skip the line and a 45 minute guided tour tickets by the MANY individuals representing various tour companies who were charging 25euro per person. We politely declined and were told we would have to wait in line for 2 hours. We joined the end of the queue anyway. The line moved quickly and 20 minutes later we were inside the Colosseum. You need to spend more than 45 minutes here – I’m so glad I didn’t buy one of those “skip-the-line” guided tours! Although we didn’t have any commentary, (I did buy a book later), there is lots to read and we spent hours here.

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It is possible to get tickets for tours to the underground area and the top tiers of the Colosseum, but I guess these were not available on the days that there is free entry.

Afterwards we sat opposite the Colosseum for lunch, admiring the view and people watching; watching all the posers trying to get that perfect shot of themselves in front of Rome’s most famous antique!

Ah, Roma, Italy 🇮🇹 – a visit to Vatican City

The next part of our Italian adventure saw us leave the snow behind in Florence and travel again by high speed train to Rome, then a metro train to take us to Spagna. The subway in Rome is not as good and less clean than that of what we saw in Milan, but another experience anyway!

Our accommodation in Roma was in Piazza Mignanelli just by the Spanish Steps, so the first thing we did was explore around the Piazza di Spagna.

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Me by the Spanish Steps

Rome is full of things to do, so 4 days is no where near long enough to do even all the “must sees”, so I am going to do more than 1 blog post on Roma.

You cannot go to Rome and not see Vatican City and our first full day in Roma saw an early start for a pre-opening visit.

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We booked an early morning (admission before general entry, with Viator) tour, and I highly recommend this, it’s worth the extra money. It started raining just as we got there, but that wasn’t too bad as most of what we did was inside. Our first stop was the Sistine Chapel – amazing! We had 20 minutes to admire the frescoes. There are no photographs allowed in the chapel, and there is supposed to be no talking. Our guide had provided a lot of information about this chapel, what to look for, what was noteworthy and why, and she provided a visual guide. This was great.

After the Sistine Chapel, we went back to look through the museums, very interesting.

And, it’s not just the Sistine Chapel that has an amazing ceiling – you can spend a lot of time looking up at the marvellous paintings on the ceilings throughout the Vatican.

On the way to St Peter’s Basilica we passed back through the Sistine Chapel (and you can understand why it’s good to go early).

St Peter’s Basilica is amazing! I am running out of superlatives here, but it was awesome. It is a very grand and stunning church.

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St Peter (with a very shiny right foot, where everyone touches it)

Of course, when you leave the Basilica, you are facing St. Peters Square.

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St Peter’s Square

 

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The Pope’s Balcony