Saturday, March 14, 2009

Madrid and home sweet home

Many of us were up early to catch the first shuttle trip to Madrid city centre at 9.30am though we did not have many hours of sleep. I almost did not make it since the shuttle could only take 18 passengers and standing was not allowed inside the shuttle. After we were dropped off, everybody made their own way in the city. I have decided to get a tourist day pass for unlimited travel on the Metro and local bus as I wanted to see as much as Madrid as possible. My wife and I were having breakfast at the Metro station when three lady members of our tour bumped into us. With four ladies, anyone can guess what would be the next agenda. Shopping! Thus I had to delay my sight-seeing so as to bring the ladies to where they wanted to go first. (We men are always scarifying for our wives, including our pockets.) First stop was at Hard Rock Café and I left them at Gran Via where they could shop there and also around Plaza Callao and the pedestrian Calle Carmen nearby with the ubiquitous branches of Zara and El Corte Ingles. I then went on my tour of Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, Almudena Cathedral, and Palacio Real.

We met up again for dinner and we found a place called FrescCo where you can eat (and drink) all you can for only 10 euro, a real bargain even though it was all vegetarian. We were back at our hotel after dinner to rest our tired feet and pack for the last time before leaving for home the next day.

While we were busy enjoying ourselves shopping and taking in the sights of Madrid, Rome and two of our tour members visited the airline office to confirm our seats back home and they also went to the Malaysian Embassy to inform them of our plight and to seek protection from the local tour operator in case we needed it. The embassy official assured us that we should be able to fly out from Madrid without any problem and they would step in to assist when necessary.

The hotel that we stayed, the Auditorium Madrid, looks very simple from the outside but inside it is well decorated with many art pieces and is more like a museum than a hotel.

When we awoke the next day, it was our last day in Spain. Everybody was up early to catch the shuttle to the airport. The check-in at the airport went smoothly though rather slowly. The last hurdle was the immigration. When we breezed through the passport formality, everybody breathed a sigh of relief and we happily did our customary last minute shopping at the airport shops. The plane left on time at 1.50pm and we were finally on our way home. Thus our memorable and unforgettable (though a little expensive) tour came to an end. And to sum up the tour in one word? Excellent.

So if you are in the MATTA fair, just be careful if someone makes you an offer that is too good to be true. Happy travelling.

Ronald Kwok

Friday, March 13, 2009

Escape from Lisbon

The next morning in Lisbon was free before lunch and most ladies opted for shopping in the Zara, El Corte Ingles or other shops near the hotel. Others went to the museum while I went for photo shoots along the city streets.

It was at this time that many frantic phone calls were made and we received many missed calls from my daughters back home. For some strange reasons, both mine and my wife's phone could not receive or make calls during this time. This added to our anxiety but luckily the SMS worked and from that we learned that Excellence Holidays, the tour company that we are under has folded up and went under themselves. By this time many of our tour members already knew what happened back home through anxious relatives and friends that have communicated the news from home but they kept to themselves so as not to upset the rest of the group who had not yet heard the news.

When the coach driver (whom we affectionately called Si Gumuk) arrived late with a worried look on his face instead of the usual smile, we all knew that something was not right. This was confirmed when he did not open the baggage compartment door to load in our luggage as was the normal routine. After some anxious minutes amidst frantic phone calls by Rome, our tour manager, and communication with Si Gumuk, he opened the baggage compartment and loaded in our baggage and we thought that all was well. This was not to be. We waited for what seemed like an eternity for the bus to start while Rome was making more frantic phone calls. Finally Rome boarded the bus and told everybody through teary eyes that the local tour operator has terminated our tour as they were now aware of the problem at Excellence Holidays and they had not yet being paid by Excellence. To continue the tour, they wanted 775 euros from each one of us to cover the whole cost of the tour and they even threatened to prevent us from leaving Lisbon. Rome decided rightly that this was too much to pay as we were already at the tail-end of the tour and we would continue on our own and she would stay with the group to make the necessary arrangement. Her main aim at that time was to get us safely back to Madrid since we already had our return air-tickets from there.

Everybody agreed with the decision and unloaded the baggage from the bus back into the hotel. All the ladies hugged Si Gumuk, the innocent victim, while the men shook hands with him as he bid farewell muttering in Spanish which we could not understand but which must be wishing us well. To get to Madrid, we could use the train, fly or charter another coach. In view of the many pieces of luggage and added baggage after many days of shopping, the most convenient option (though not the cheapest) was to charter another coach that would provide a door-to-door service. Since we were now on our own, we went around looking for our lunch while Rome made the coach and accommodation arrangement. Thus our fear on the added ingredients at the Chinese restaurant lunch did not materialize and this could be a blessing in disguise. Rome booked us into the 4-star Hotel Auditorium in Madrid more out of convenience than on price since this had free shuttle service to the airport as well as to the city centre and it was able to accommodate the whole group at short notice.

We left Lisbon at about 3.00pm and everybody was in high spirits and nobody made any complaints on the turn of events. Rome then informed us that she already knew about the problem much earlier and has kept it to herself and not informed the group (except for her roommate, a member of the tour group) so as not to spoil the mood of the tour. She has hoped that the local tour operator will not discovered the problem of Excellence as they did not have a local office in Malaysia. We were fortunate that they only discovered it with only two days of the tour left or we would have no choice but to fork out the whole sum to continue the tour if they had discovered it in the early part of the tour. Rome was also thankful for our amicable response to the situation.

However, the air-cond of the coach died shortly after departure so it became rather uncomfortable with the temperature nearing 30 Celsius. We had dinner at a rest-stop and many had the opportunity to sample the local tapas and we finally arrived at our hotel at 1.30am the early next morning as the Portuguese driver had missed the hotel earlier. I suffered another misfortune in that in his haste to unload my luggage, the driver snapped the handle but this is nothing as long as we were back in the safety of Madrid.

Thus we all had a good night's rest after all the excitement and anxiety in the day.

Ronald Kwok

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lisbon, Portugal

From Seville, we went to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Compared to Madrid, the streets of Lisbon were generally less clean, less well-kept and is evidently the poorer city of the two. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant before we visited the sites of Lisbon. It was here that we had our first unhappy experience. Our tour manager had a heated argument with the restaurant lady owner over the food arrangement for the coach driver. She accused the tour manager of "bai cher" (eating for free in Mandarin), little knowing that these were prophetic words when the events unfold later. Many of us were concerned after this quarrel since we would be having lunch again here the next day and we were afraid that we would be getting "extra ingredients" in our meal. All this were forgotten when we tour the city.

Two of the many monuments in the city.

The main bull-ring.

The Alfama area, the oldest part of the city but it is poorly maintained and rather depressing.

The river side was more interesting. First the Torre de Belem or Belem Tower commemorating Portugal's age of discovery.

The Monument to the Discoveries, dedicated to the greatest Portuguese explorers.

A copy of the Golden Gate Bridge?

Shoppers in the main pedestrian mall.
We had Portuguese dinner at the popular restaurant Luso where it was accompanied by Fado entertainment which is traditional Portuguese singing and folk dancing.

Thus ended a great evening and there would be shocking news the next day.

Ronald Kwok

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Seville, land of Flamenco

Our next stop is Seville, the capital of the region of Andalusia. This is the land of Flamenco dancing and also the setting for Bizet's opera, Carmen.

This is Seville's landmark, the Torre del Oro or Tower of Gold, a Moorish watch tower that is now a maritime museum at the river front.

The entrance to the Alcazar Royal Palace. Since we did not have the time, we visited the Seville Cathedral instead of the Palace.

Outside the Seville Cathedral.

The Moorish bell tower with La Giralda (weather wane) portraying Faith.

We walked right up to the top of the tower where the bells were. Along the way we had a good view of the city from different angles and here is one of them.

From here we walked in the picturesque narrow streets with souvenir shops and restaurants where some of us had the first taste of sangria, a cocktail drink mixed with Spanish red wine.
Colourful ceramic tiles for sale.

The next tourist spot was the Maria Luisa Park where the Plaza de Espana is located. There were a lot of scenes of Spain built up by colourful tiles.

From here, we checked into Hotel Vertice which was a bit out of town. After a rest, we ventured out to the city again for our dinner and Flamenco show at a restaurant close to the Seville bullring, the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza.

The stage for the Flamenco show. The show was as fiery as you could get with a tinge of Carmen and everyone had a wonderful time.

The finale.

This was our last stop in Spain as we would leave for Lisbon, Portugal the next morning.

Ronald Kwok

Friday, March 6, 2009

Granada, land of Alhambra

We arrived in Granada in time for lunch with a western meal. Some street shots before we left for Alhambra, one of Spain's most popular tourist attractions.

The Palace of Charles V, a Renaissance building that is square on the outside but has a circular courtyard inside where concerts are held in the summer.

This is a view of the Albaicin, the ancient Moorish quarters from the courtyard inside Alhambra.
The "green" fort and the brown fort.

Inside the main Alhambra palace.

All the intricate design of master craftsmen on display.

From the outside, it looks so plain and simple but it's amazing inside.

From Alhambra, it was a short walk to Generalife, or Garden of Paradise. This was the summer palace of the Moorish kings with tranquil gardens for their relaxation.

After our visit to the Alhambra, we stopped at one of the newer shopping complexes in town before checking into the spanking new Hotel Abades Nevada Palace. The facilities here were ultra modern and the buffet dinner was sumptuous. Highly recommended.

An added bonus was that a supermarket was just next door and all of us in the tour group cleaned up almost all the chocolates from the shelves for a very good night's rest and sweet dreams.

Ronald Kwok