Orange trees in Ronda, Spain

2019 Iberian Peninsula Field Report

Tom Sharpe|June 3, 2019|Field Report

Saturday, April 20, 2019
Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain / Embark Ocean Adventurer

During the course of yesterday we had gathered at H1898, a comfortable historic hotel in the heart of Barcelona, where, over cocktails and dinner, we met our fellow travelers and were introduced to our expedition team. Today we set out by bus and on foot, to explore this city, the capital of the Spanish province of Catalonia. Without doubt, the highlight was our visit to La Sagrada Familia, the remarkable, famously-unfinished masterpiece of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). This unique building, whose construction was begun in 1882, has a form which is almost organic, its many spires and their decoration with biblical stories appearing to have grown naturally. We were fortunate to have a tour of the interior, a huge space full of light and color. Construction continues apace with aim of finally finishing in 2026, the centenary of the death of Gaudí.

A walk through the narrow streets and lanes of the city’s gothic quarter took us to the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, which dates from the late 13th to the 19th centuries, its style a complete contrast to that of Gaudí. The adjacent Royal Palace saw a historic meeting in 1492—this was where Christopher Columbus described his discoveries to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on his return from his voyage to the New World. 

Our walk continued to the 7 Portes restaurant where we enjoyed a typically long, leisurely Catalonian lunch before our buses took us the short distance to the port where the Ocean Adventurer, our home for the next 12 days, awaited us. As we sailed out of the harbor, we looked back to see Columbus atop his column, his outstretched arm directing us to explore.

Sunday, April 21
At Sea

With a leisurely day at sea, we enjoyed a relaxed start with an Easter Sunday brunch, before our expedition geologist, Tom Sharpe, kicked off our lecture program with his presentation on the geology and landscape of Iberia. Our talks continued with our local guide Emma Gutierrez’s entertaining perspective on modern Spain, highlighting the country’s regional differences and how these contrasted with the image the country projected of itself to the outside world in the 1960s. Our day of presentations concluded with historian, T.H. Baughman, who summed up the first 15,000 years of Spanish history most eloquently. Our day at sea came to an end with the captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner hosted by the master of the Ocean Adventurer, Yury Gododnik.

Monday, April 22
Cartagena / Murcia, Región de Murcia

The Adventurer having docked early this morning in the ancient port of Cartagena, we set out on the drive north to the city of Murcia, the eponymous capital of this autonomous region of Spain. Known as the orchard of Europe, this area is predominantly agricultural, growing not just the traditional crops of oranges, lemons, olives, and almonds but others such as melons and peppers for the markets in northern Europe. The irrigation system serving the fields still uses the network of channels established during the Moorish occupation of Spain many centuries ago.

Our route took us across the forested foothills of the Sierra Carrascoy to the attractive town of Murcia which was settled by the Moors in the 9th century and conquered by the Christians in the 13th. The town was bedecked with many colorful flowers in preparation for the Funeral of the Sardine, an annual festival which was about to begin. We viewed the 18th-century Rococo Bishop’s Palace and entered the Santa Maria Cathedral opposite. This building, originally a mosque, became a cathedral in 1394 and over the course of the next five hundred years, evolved through a variety of architectural styles—Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque—into that which we see today. Inside, through their elaborately decorated private chapels, rich local families displayed their wealth.

We continued to the Royal Casino, not a gambling den, but a private club dating from 1847. Its name deriving from casa, a house, this was the preserve of the wealthy and influential in Murcia and the place where business was transacted. Its impressive facade stood out against the shop fronts of the Calle Trapería and the interior is ornately decorated and furnished. Today, over 150 years on, it remains a private club.

After lunch on the ship, we explored the city of Cartagena with our guides, and in particular the spectacular Roman amphitheater which was discovered only in 1987 when some house repairs were being undertaken. The discovery led to the demolition of an area of the city and the relocation of the inhabitants so that excavation could take place.

Tuesday, April 23
Motril / Granada, Andalucía

We awoke this morning with our ship alongside in the port of Motril, where we disembarked for a rather rainy drive north to Granada, passing fields of fruit and olive trees before we rose up into the mountains of the Betic Cordillera. Arriving in Granada, we wandered the narrow, Moorish streets with their tiny close-packed shops, so much like the souks of Morocco and the Arab world, and found our way in heavy rain to the Capella Real de Granada. This tall, Flemish Gothic royal chapel, built between 1506 and 1521, is the final resting place of the powerful Catholic monarchs, Isabella of Castile and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon. Their tomb, of intricately sculpted Italian Carrara marble, lies behind a huge grille of gilded iron, and next to them is that of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Insane, while above rises a huge, colorful carved wooden altarpiece. The adjacent sacristy housed Isabella’s silver crown and scepter, as well as her collection of religious paintings, including a work by Boticelli.

A short, wet walk took us to the adjacent Cathedral which has the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain, and Isabella’s grandson) within an enormous round pantheon which he had constructed for himself. A lunch of wine and tapas followed, after which we made our way to our hotel in the center of the city for a well-earned, and traditional siesta.

In the late afternoon, our buses took us uphill to the Alhambra Palace Hotel where we enjoyed a lively flamenco performance followed by dinner, with a wonderful view over the city. As the sun went down, we strolled a short distance to the Alhambra itself and the highlight of our visit—a private tour of this spectacular example of Moorish architecture and its gardens by twilight. Returning down to the city, we fell into our beds at the Barcelo Carmen Granada Hotel, ready for our Andalusian adventure to continue tomorrow.


Wednesday, April 24
Granada / Córdoba

From our hotel in the center of Granada, this morning we headed northwest towards Córdoba. As we departed the city, the brilliant white summits of the nearby Sierra Nevada caught our eye, yesterday’s rain having fallen as snow on these, the highest mountains on the Spanish mainland. Our route took us through lower mountains of the Betic Cordillera, with undulating olive groves stretching as far as we could see. A break at the settlement of Luque allowed us to sample, and purchase, some of this region’s finest extra virgin olive oil before we continued down into the wide Betic Depression and the valley of the Rio Guadalquivir. Olive groves gave way to wheat fields as we crossed the rolling landscape towards Córdoba.

This city of yellow stone sits at an ancient crossing point on the Guadalquivir River, still spanned by a Roman bridge. We gathered with our local guide in the 16th-century Orange Tree Courtyard of the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba before she led us through a small door and into the building itself, a breathtaking experience as we found ourselves in the most enormous space, a Muslim prayer hall with hundreds of columns and arches in all directions. This remarkable building, now a World Heritage Site, comprises an 8th-century mosque adapted in the 13th century to become a Roman Catholic chapel and cathedral, preserving not only some wonderful Muslim architecture but various phases of Catholic construction.

We then explored the narrow streets of the city’s old Jewish Quarter and several of Córdoba’s famous patios, the small central courtyards of private houses, some from the sixteenth century, which are festooned with hundreds of brightly colored plants in preparation for an annual festival and competition.

After lunch at a local restaurant, we left Córdoba by bus to travel south past olive groves and vineyards and through some rugged mountains to Málaga where our ship awaited us. A final treat lay in store for us when, after dinner, we were called up on deck to enjoy a fine panorama of the lights along the south coast of Spain, culminating in the huge, floodlit gray lump of the Rock of Gibraltar off our starboard bow. Ahead of us lay the darkness of the Strait of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean and, to port, the lights of the north African coast. Two continents in one view. 

Thursday, April 25

In the ancient world, the headlands guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean were called the Pillars of Hercules and marked the limits of the known world. Overnight, we had boldly gone beyond and into the Atlantic Ocean. By dawn we were entering the mouth of one of the great rivers of the Iberian Peninsula, the Guadalquivir. Taking a local pilot on board, we sailed upriver, as did the Romans 2000 years ago. This was a major trade route in Roman times, with wheat, salt, fish, and metals being transported all over the empire. The marshlands around the entrance to the river are a haven for wildlife, and over breakfast we spotted storks, spoonbills, and egrets along the river banks and flying by.

Today the Guadalquivir is navigable to Seville, but in Roman times, boats could reach even farther upstream to Córdoba. We enjoyed a barbeque lunch on the back deck as we approached our berth in the center of Seville.

From our central dock, we set out on an afternoon walking tour of Seville with our guides, through the narrow streets of the old quarter to visit Seville Cathedral, the third largest in the world. The foundations of this building with its Orange Tree Courtyard, lie in a late 12th-century mosque, consecrated as a cathedral in 1248. The tall Giralda bell-tower incorporates the mosque’s original minaret. Much of the Gothic structure of the cathedral dates from the 15th and 16th centuries, with Baroque additions in the 17th and 18th centuries. Seville Cathedral is also noted for the impressive tomb of Christopher Columbus (or at least some bits of him).

We moved on to explore the nearby Real Alcázar Sevilla, like the Alhambra a large complex of royal palaces and gardens, and another fine example of 12th-century Moorish architecture, later adapted for use by the Catholic monarchs. Here we saw the room in which Isabella received Columbus on his return from his second voyage and, in the gardens, plants brought back to Spain by voyagers to the outposts of the expanding Spanish empire. After a welcome break and refreshments at the Alfonso XIII Hotel, we returned to our ship in style, by horse and carriage.

Friday, April 26
Seville / Ronda

The Ocean Adventurer remained alongside in the center of Seville overnight and it was a beautiful sunny morning as we drove towards the town of Ronda, high in the mountains to the southeast. We crossed the wide flat plain of the Betic Depression and the valley of the Guadalquivir River, up onto a rolling, undulating agricultural landscape of barley and wheat fields and olive trees and then through the steep, wooded, mountains of the Sierra Grazalema to reach Ronda.

Founded during the Second Punic War by Scipio Africanus, the attractive old town of Ronda has a spectacular setting perched on the edge of a high sandstone plateau with expansive views all around. The town straddles El Tajo, a deep gorge of the Rio Guadalevin which is spanned by three bridges—the Roman Puente Romano, the Moorish Puente Viejo ‘old bridge,’ and the Puente Nuevo or ‘new bridge’ which dates from the late 18th century. Ronda’s scenic location has attracted visitors for over 200 years from the Romantic writers and artists such as Washington Irving, Gustav Doré, and Arthur Melville to Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles in more recent times. 

With our local guides, we toured the old town, taking in the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor with its many religious effigies, the Casa de Don Bosco, a house dating from the beginning of the last century, and the famous Bullring of the Royal Cavalry Order of Ronda, the home of bullfighting in Spain.

Over lunch at the Restaurant Abades Ronda opposite the bullring we enjoyed not only superb local food and wine, but also wonderful views across the Andalusian landscape before we returned to our ship in Seville.

The fine weather continued this evening as we sailed down the Guadalquivir River, the  glorious warm rays of the setting sun illuminating the silvery fish leaping in the water and the wings of storks, herons, and egrets along the river banks.

Saturday, April 27
At Sea

As we sailed along the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal in some rolling seas today we were informed and entertained by our expedition staff. We began the day with a presentation by Madalena Patacho on the explorations of her Portugese compatriot, Ferdinand Magellan and his discovery of the strait which now bears his name in South America. She was followed by Emma, who described the origins and background of the pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.

In the afternoon, Madalena returned to give us an amusing look at life in Portugal today, but only after she had been busy in the ship’s galley baking some typical and delicious Portugese cookies for us which we tasted, along with some cheese. Our historian T.H. closed our day of talks with his fascinating account of the life and reign of the Spanish Fascist dictator Franscico Franco.

Sunday, April 28
Porto, Portugal

The smaller of the two nations occupying the Iberian Peninsula, but home of another great medieval power whose explorers drew our map of the world—Portugal. We docked this morning in the port of Leixóes just north of the city of Porto, our destination today. The birthplace of Henry the Navigator, Porto in the north of Portugal has a sheltered harbor at the mouth of the Douro river, one of the great rivers of the Iberian Peninsula. We drove along the attractive Atlantic waterfront before following the river inland into the city, notable for its many bridges and its blue-tiled buildings. A walking tour showed us the 18th-century Baroque Clérigos Tower and the popular Lello Bookshop with its Art Deco façade, and we appreciated the azulejo—the blue painted tiles which adorned the wall of the Igreja do Carmo, Carmelite church, and the stunning interior of the São Bento train station. 

Café Guarany, a traditional restaurant in the city was our lunch venue and our meal began with that most appropriate Portuguese aperitif, white port. Port from Porto was also the focus of our attention this afternoon, with a visit to one of the many port cellars, Cockburn’s, where we were given an insight into the history and production of the drink and the opportunity to taste and compare several different varieties. 

From Cockburn’s it was a short stroll along the lively waterfront to step on board a rabelo for a cruise along the Douro river. These traditional boats carried barrels of port along the river, but are now used mainly for cruising as they give a different perspective of Porto’s bridges, including the 19th-century Ponte Dom Luis I, an arched metal bridge built by a partner of the famous French engineer A.G. Eiffel. On our return to the riverbank, our Cruise Director Kelsey was awaiting us with warm, freshly-baked, pastel de nata, Portugese custard tarts

Back on board the Ocean Adventurer, we gathered in the lounge for a performance of fado, a style of story-telling singing so typical of Portugal. We heard several moving songs, the singers accompanied by classical guitar and the mandolin-like Portuguese guitar.

Monday, April 29
Vilagarcía de Arousa, Galicia / Santiago de Compostela

On a beautiful sunny morning, the Ocean Adventurer pulled into the dock at Vilagarcía de Arousa on the west coast of Galicia. Situated on the Ría de Arousa, the estuary of the Rio Ulla, Vilagarcia is famous for its seafood, and particularly its mussels. We drove north along the shoreline and through low, rolling hills with eucalyptus forest introduced from Australia for paper-making, to reach the holy pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela. Visible from all around, the cathedral dominates the town’s main square the Praza de Obradoiro, which takes its name from the stonemasons’ workshops that were here during the cathedral’s construction from the 11th to the 13th century. The cathedral’s exterior has recently been restored and work has now moved to the interior in preparation for the next holy year in 2021. We were able to view the silver casket with the bones of the apostle St. James (Santiago) beneath the main alter and the stunning Pórtico de la Gloria, a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture with over two hundred colorful stone carvings dating back 900 years.

Lunch was not far, at the beautiful Hostal dos Reis Católicos, now a parador, on the main square. There, we had a surprise visit from a troupe of Galician musicians in traditional costumes.

In the afternoon, a small band of us set of us, led by Emma (who lives here), set out on part of the Camino, the pilgrimage route which leads to Santiago. We walked only five kilometers of the Fisterra route which extends westwards from the city, but it allowed us to appreciate the nature of the Camino and the beauty and tranquility of the surrounding countryside.

Once back on board and at sea, the day had a further surprise for us as, at the end of dinner this evening, the Ocean Adventurer was visited by a large school of common dolphins. Perhaps as many as a hundred of them surrounded the ship, leaping in our wake and riding the bow wave, beautifully illuminated by the golden light of the setting sun.

Tuesday, April 30
A Coruña / Lugo

We docked this morning at A Coruña, a major fishing port on the northwest tip of the Iberian Peninsula. A foggy drive into the hills of the Galician countryside brought us to the small town of Lugo, a designated World Heritage Site for the remarkable survival of the only complete and intact Roman town wall in the world. Dating from the 3rd century AD, the Roman wall is 7,434 feet long, up to 40 feet high, and has 71 towers along its length. The misty weather lent a magical atmosphere to our walk along the top of the wall. We also took in the cathedral and had time for a stroll through the streets before we returned to A Coruña and our ship for lunch. 

This afternoon, we explored the sights of A Coruña. Long an important port, it was from here that the Spanish Armada sailed for their ill-fated invasion of England in 1588. On the granite headland of Monte de San Pedro to the west of the town, we saw the remnants of later warfare, huge guns set up between the two world wars, but never fired in anger. This defensive site overlooking the port now offers a fine vista across the peninsula occupied by the town. We next drove to the opposite side of the bay, Ensenada del Orzán, to the tall Tower of Hercules, yet another World Heritage Site. Dating from the 2nd century AD and first constructed by the Romans, this is the oldest functioning lighthouse in the world. The external structure we see today dates from 1788.


Wednesday, May 1
Gijón, Principado de Asturias / Oviedo

It was a cloudy start today, when we arrived in the port of Gijón on the coast of Asturias and were welcomed ashore by a troupe of dancers in traditional costume, performing to the music of Asturian bagpipes and drum. Their dances and music have much in common with other parts of the Celtic fringe such as Ireland and Scotland. This region was a heartland of heavy industry—coal mining, and iron and steel production, but now most of this has gone. It is, however, famous for its cider, cheese, and chorizo which we had an opportunity to sample on our excursions today. Most of us headed south to the city of Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, where we noticed the different architecture, lacking any Moorish influence. We explored the old quarter and viewed the Cathedral of San Salvador. Dating from the 14th century, it sits on the site of an earlier, 8th century, church. Returning to the ship for lunch, we had an afternoon to wander Gijón in search of a sideria where we could try the regional cider.

Meanwhile, a small band of intrepid souls had set out for the high Cantabrian Mountains—the Picos de Europa. We drove up a steep, twisting, narrow mountain road through craggy limestone mountains to an elevation of over 3000 feet at the Lagos de Covadonga where we found ourselves in cloud. Despite the limited visibility, we hiked a short distance to view the lakes, our naturalists finding and identifying plants, fossils, and birds on the way. Returning downhill, we stopped to view the impressive cave shrine and basilica at the village of Covadonga, before enjoying a lunch of typical Asturian dishes at the Parador de Cangas de Onís, once a medieval monastery.

Once back on board the Ocean Adventurer, it was soon time for the captain’s farewell reception and dinner after which we were hugely entertained by Madalena’s wonderful slide show of our voyage around the coast of the Iberian Peninsula.

Thursday, May 2
Bilbao, País Vasco (Basque Country) / Disembark

Although this morning we disembarked the Ocean Adventurer for the final time, our experiences of the Iberian Peninsula were not yet at an end. Bilbao, capital of the Basque Country, was once a major industrial city centered around iron and steel works, but has reinvented itself as a cultural destination. This is attributable to the 1997 opening of the Guggenheim Museum, a spectacular titanium-clad building by the Canadian architect Frank Gehry on the banks of the Ría de Bilbao. An outpost of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it houses a changing display of modern art.

By contrast to the modernist Guggenheim, the atmospheric old quarter, the Casco Viejo, has the city’s 14th-century Gothic cathedral and a street layout from the 15th century which we explored with our guide before heading out of the city for lunch. This was taken at a beautiful 16th-century farmhouse set in the countryside, and here we not only sampled pintxos, Basque tapas, but were shown how to cook some of them.

It was late in the afternoon when we took our siesta on the bus back into the city where we spent our last night in Spain at the Hotel Meliá Bilbao

And so our wonderful expedition to the Iberian Peninsula concluded; we had sailed all the way along the coast from Barcelona to Bilbao, visited countless World Heritage Sites, and on the way we had come to realize that the image of the Iberian Peninsula that most of us had—a land of flamenco, bullfighting, sangria, and sunshine—is that of the south, and that there is much more to this part of the world. We came away with a deeper knowledge of this land of diverse peoples, culture, language, landscape, and climate.

Related Blog Posts