Wanna Go to Vegas?

by Bob Sparrow

South Point Hotel & Casino

It was Monday, mid-morning, work was slow, the guests we had coming for dinner on Tuesday had canceled due to illness and I knew the answer to the question before I asked it, so I wanted to make sure I was ready when I said, “Hey, Linda, wanna go to Vegas?”  Without missing a beat, she said, “I can be ready in an hour.” She was ready in half an hour!  I had just filled the car with gas the day before, so off to Vegas we went.  Linda had called for reservations at our favorite hotel, South Point, but had rooms only for Tuesday night, but nothing for Monday.  She called around and discovered that this time of year was ‘convention time’, so not only were most of the hotels filled, but those that weren’t were charging exorbitant rates, but I assumed the ‘Ms Bargin Hunter’ would find us a place.

As we headed to Vegas, I was excited about placing a ‘real’ bet on the Monday Night game, since my brother and I place ‘pretend’ bets on both college and pro games every week – this year we’re making some ‘pretend’ money.  It was the Bills against the Jets, I liked the Bills to cover and the over, but called Jack on the way out and asked him to ‘research’ it and call me back with what he found.  We were about an hour out of Vegas when he called back, “parley Buffalo to the over”, he said; we were on the same page.  This was going to be fun!!!  We stopped at South Pointe to place the bet and watch the game, plus had a gourmet dinner of a hot dog and a beer. Jack & I were definitely on the same page, but we were in the wrong book!  Jets won and the score was under.  After the game we head further down the strip to Circus Circus, the only hotel with vacancies and a reasonable rate.

Circus Circus made my list

Recommendation #1: Don’t ever stay at Circus Circus.  It is very tired, the circus left town years ago; after waiting 40 minutes to check in, we had to walk across the street into a low-rise, low-rent building with no elevators to our second floor room.  Our room was possibly where they kept the elephants before bringing them across the street to the ‘Big Top’ during Circus Circus’ hey day.  We played some slots (they still had the kind with handles!). then retired for the evening.

On Tuesday morning we could not get out of Circus Circus fast enough, although we felt like we were abandoning the cockroaches that we had befriended there.  So far, our ‘spur of the moment’ get-away had included a hot dog dinner, a bad room at a bad hotel and $200+ in gambling debt.  A Denny’s down the street seemed like the appropriate place to stop for a gormet breakfast!

Checking into South Point felt like checking into the Ritz.  I found a craps table and had great fun and very nice winnings before we noticed a show in the South Point theater featuring The Bronx Wanderers, and thought how bad can they be after our Circus Circus experience, so we bought tickets.

Recommendation #2: If you ever get a chance to see The Bronx Wanderers – do it!!!  They are a father (Vinny Adinolfi, 65 years old) and son (Vinny Jr, 35 years old) band, both play the guitar, keyboard and are lead singers; they also have a great saxophone player and the group has awesome harmony.  They do rock and roll classics from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and do it very well – they killed Bohemian Rapsody!!  Vinny, the dad, was a successful record producer in New York and worked with, and had great stories about, most of the popular recording stars of the day.  We finished the evening with a nice dinner at the Silverado Steak House, gambled a bit more and retired to a much nicer room.

While this spur-of-the-moment escapade started out as a disaster, it ended with me thinking I just might ask Linda again, “Wanna go to Vegas?”





Hilary – Much Ado . . .

by Bob Sparrow

Flooding in Palm Springs area

Over this past weekend, while most people in southern California were preparing their homes and yards for the arrival of Hurricane Hilary, we, Mark & Kathy Johnson, Bob & Jeanne Pacelli and Linda & I, headed to San Diego to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of the Johnsons, who had rented a beach-front home on Mission Bay.  We were heading right into what was projected to be the teeth of the storm.

Hilary, at the time, was rated a Category 3 hurricane; I looked up the definition:

Winds up to 129 mph!  Devastating damage will occur: well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof, decking and gable ends.  Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads.

Road to Death Valley

The last time a hurricane of any category hit California was in 1939!  Undaunted, we headed down Interstate 5 to San Diego on Saturday morning and noticed that the freeway was packed . . . going the other way, out of San Diego.  We were clearly going ‘up’ the ‘down’ staircase?  We wondered, is this a smart move?  We concluded, “Ahhh, we’ll be fine.”

Before we left home, we made sure all of our outside furniture/umbrellas were secured or put away.  We did the same at the Mission Bay home on Saturday evening.  We were preparing for the worst, which we were told by local meteorologists that it would be Sunday afternoon through Sunday evening.  By the time we arrived at the beautiful bay-side home, Hilary had been down-graded to a Category 2 hurricane, meaning winds up to 110 miles per hours – still significant!

The group weathering the storm at Mission Bay

Once there, we got more news, Hilary had been further downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane, and perhaps just a ‘Tropical Storm’ (winds 65 mph).  It was actually fairly balmy as we sat on our patio and watched volleyball and other various activities on the beach.

We could not have had a better place to watch the storm, in fact, once we got there and parked our car, we never got back into it until four days later when it was time to drive home.  Aside from a great pontoon boat ride, we had two dinners at the Oceana restaurant at the Catamaran Hotel, which was on the beach about 100 yards from our house.

An Oceana Hurricane!

We were getting a light rain most of the day along with mild winds, but nothing extraordinary – we kept waiting for Hilary to hit.  She did finally hit, but it was more of a playful slap than a hit.  Oddly enough, we were disappointed that we weren’t going to experience a once-in-a-generation hurricane/tropical storm in southern California.  As it turnd out, the most ‘catastrophic’ thing that happened was our power went out for an hour or so and we were forced to use a flashlight and candles to play some games at the house until the power came back on.  As it turns out, the deserts and the mountains got hit much worse than any of our coastal cities.  Rain is, indeed, unusual in southern California in August, and the Tropical Storm did cause some major flooding the desert and mountain areas, but it just seemed a little anti-climatic to us on the San Diego coast after all the hype.

As it turned out the closest we got to a hurricane was the one I ordered at the Oceana bar.






Mulligans in Michigan

by Bob Sparrow

Traverse City, Michigan

It had been thirteen years since I jumped on a plane in Orange County to Detroit on a Monday morning to go to work, and then flew home on Friday night – yes, I ‘commuted’ to Troy, Michigan, mostly every week for five years, so I knew the way to Michigan.  But this trip was not about work, it was about golf.  Actually, it turned out that golf was a lot of work!  The Sagers, Budds, VanBoxmeers, and us, headed to Traverse City in northern Michigan to enjoy four of the over 1,000 golf courses in the state of Michigan.  Those who have been to northern Michigan understand just how beautiful it is – lots of trees and everything is so green!  We got lucky with the weather, as it was not too hot, not too humid, but, as Goldilocks would say, “Just right”.  Our lodging for the first half of the week was in an awesome, four-bedroom condo at the A-Ga-Ming golf complex.

We traveled on a Sunday and had a tee time at the A-Ga-Ming Sundance course set for Monday morning, but the Sagers’ and VanBoxmeers’ golf clubs decided they wanted to spend some extra time in Dallas.  So, no golf on Monday; our free day of Tuesday was rescheduled for golf and on our golf day of Monday was rescheduled for a self-directed tour of Traverse City, where we had lunch on the roof top bar of the Hotel Indigo, that provided us a beautiful view of the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay.

Happy to be playing the 19th hole

We took this free day as an opportunity to visit an old friend of Linda’s and mine, Shiela Nittman, who used to live in our neighborhood back in Orange, but she and husband, Helmut, were now retiring in their beautiful second home overlooking Torch Lake, which was only about twenty minutes from where we were staying.  It was a great visit, as Shiela regaled us with stories of the surrounding area.

Later that day we also visited a friend of John’s, Cindy, who lived in the area and used to own the Colorado Mining Co. restaurant in Denver and knew John when he played for the Denver Avalanche, NHL hockey team.  She had one story after another, either about the hockey players coming into the restaurant and causing havoc, or the night Elvis came in and they made him a huge peanut butter, jelly and bacon sandwich.  We ended the evening having some indigenous white fish and walleye at Gray Gables, a nice restaurant in Charlevoix.

Room from The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet

Looking for golf balls in a field of sunflowers

After another day of bad golf for me, we changed locations from our four-bedroom condo in Ag-A-Ming to the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, a nice, but dated, facility.  Our room looked like something right out of 50s.  We had a free day, meaning no golf, to just tour the area, so we went into Traverse City for breakfast, then stopped by a large field of sunflowers that we spotted along the road; there was a place to pull over and take photos, so we did.  Dinner on the 15th floor of the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa building – beautiful view, just an OK dinner.

After three rounds of frustrating golf for ‘Double Bogey Bob’, that’s me, I can’t tell you how excited I was that we booked the Jack Nichlaus designed course, ‘The Bear’ for our last day of golf in Michigan.  Here’s the description of the course:

“One of the toughest golf courses in America, featuring Scottish terraced fairways, tiered greens, deep grassy roughs, moguls, mounds and deep pot bunkers, along with lakes, ponds, forests, streams and fruit orchards.”

Another broken club!!!

The course was about this friendly

Oh great, all that to deal with plus FRUIT ORCHARDS . . . on a golf course??!!  I didn’t sleep well the night before, wondering whether I had enough balls to get through even the front nine!  But, as it turned out, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded . . . IT WAS WORSE!!!  It took three hours to play the front nine!!!  Not wanting to miss our dinner reservation and being totally frustrated with ‘The Bear’, we quit after 12 holes and headed to the showers!  Travel tip: Don’t play this course unless you are a very good golfer, are in a very good mood and have plenty of time . . . and balls!

Our last supper was at the Turtle Creek Hotel & Casino, and it was probably our best of the trip, made better by the fact that Camus wine was half-priced, and after what we’d been through, we all needed something to help us forget that round, or two-thirds of a round, of golf.

Northern Michigan golf: Check




Spain/Portugal Epilogue and Photo Finish

by Bob Sparrow

Following are some final random thoughts on the trip to Spain/Portugal.

  • Those who have traveled on a planned tour, know that the ‘Tour Guide’ can make or break the trip. So, here’s our tour guide, Daniel.  The ladies thought he was good-looking.  But a pretty face really doesn’t get it with the guys, if you


    don’t have a brain, and a personality.  OK, Daniel was smart (had a law degree), funny, educational, and entertaining.  He made the trip so much more enjoyable!

  • The month of May is a perfect time to visit these two countries – earlier and you’re dealing with cold and rain, later and you’re dealing with extreme heat
  • Red, White or Beer? When asked, at a restaurant, what you want to drink, while some restaurants have a wine list, you’re typically asked, “Red or White?”  Or you may be asked if you want a beer, if so, there is no choice, most restaurants have only one brand of beer – it is good, but that’s it!
  • Bordering on both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, as you might suspect, there is lots of fish on the menu, some I was familiar with, Codfish, Dorada and Tuna along with specialties like Squid, Octopus, Sardines, Anchovies and Cockles. Then there’s Hake (the most popular), Dogfish, Dreamfish & Conger.  Lots of fish!
  • Don’t go to these two countries if you don’t like green olives. It’s one of their leading exports and a dish of them is put in front of you when and wherever you first sit down.
  • It is said that tapas is not a meal, it’s an activity. I have concluded that tapas is a great concept, it allows you to share a variety of foods within your group.  I probably wouldn’t have ordered deep fried egg plant with balsamic and honey, but it was one of my favorites.
  • You’ll find thin sliced ham and a variety of cheeses at breakfast, lunch and dinner
  • Only 3 pounds. That’s what I gained in 16 days of eating and drinking lots of wine and beer.
  • 42 miles. That’s how far I walked in the first week.  I’m guessing that contributed to only 3 pounds of weight gain.
  • We were introduced to ‘El Camino Santiago’, or the ‘Way of St. James’, which is a pilgrimage that over 200,000 people take every year from various places in Europe to the northwest corner of Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Composteia, where tradition holds that the remains of the apostle of St. James are buried. We were shown a movie, called The Way, starring Martin Sheen that depicts this pilgrimage.  Daniel, our guide, had done the pilgrimage twice.
  •  The absolute highlight of the trip was traveling with great friends – so thank you Mike & Tanis Nelson, Bob & Jeanne Pacelli, Rob & Stefanie Warren and Marc & Lisa Webb – great neighbors and great travel companions

The photo finish . . .

Rub the ass of this statue in Madrid for good luck

The Three Stooges


Dinner or bait?


Andalusian ready to give birth

Travelers, not tourists


Passage to Portugal

by Bob Sparrow


We leave the magnificent city of Seville and the beautiful country of Spain for Portugal.  I have come to learn that Spain and Portugal are like sibling rivals but without the brotherly love.  The fact is, they really don’t like each other much, but it doesn’t matter, we like them both.  Shortly after crossing the Portuguese border, we stop at a tile museum and tour through it; at the end of the tour is a glass of Portugal port wine waiting for us – so far Portugal is looking just like Spain – lots of wine!

We are staying three nights at a beach resort in the coastal town of Cascais (pronounced CASH–KAI-SH), our hotel is an old fortress right on the water, with a marina right next to us.  It is a short walk to town along the beach as we take in the sites, which include a ‘no-hands’ beach volleyball game, just like regular volleyball, but you can only contact the ball with your feet, your chest, or your head – very interesting; and the guys we were watching were very good.  We go to an out-of-the-way place (meaning it’s not in the middle of all the touristy area) for a chicken dinner – maybe the best tasting chicken I’ve ever had.  The next day we tour Lisbon, which is about an hour bus ride away.

No, not the Golden Gate

The parallels between Lisbon and San Francisco are amazing; both built on a hill, both have a ‘Golden Gate Bridge’ (see photo), both have cable cars and both had devastating earthquakes that reconfigured the city.  As we toured, we learn the extensive history of the many Portuguese explorers like Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan – they literally ruled the world in the mid-to-late fifteenth century. After a streetcar tour of the city, we go to dinner and experience a Fado exhibition.  Fado?  I didn’t know either, but it is a form of Portuguese folk music that is typically mournful and melancholy.  The show we saw featured a singer, a stand-up bass player, a rhythm guitar player and the virtuoso of the group, a 12-string Spanish guitar player, who picked with a thumb pick and one finger pick and made the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard come out of a guitar – he was amazing!!  A very fun evening.

Fado musicians

The next day we head to the little town of Sintra, in a wooded area that has been a favorite summer residence of Portuguese kings for the past six centuries.  We explore a Disney-like castle, Quinta da Regaleira, with a Gothic facade and beautiful gardens.  We are back in Cascais in time to enjoy our ‘farewell dinner’, where we will say goodbye to our tour guide, Daniel and the ten ‘other’ travelers in our group.

Quinta da Regaleira

The ten ‘hood members stay an extra day for an excursion to Fatima, Nazare and Obidos.  We are now in a Sprinter van with a local tour guide for our first stop, Fatima.  Next to the Vatican, Fatima is probably the most revered place for those of the Catholic religion, as it’s the place where, in 1917, three Shepard children saw the apparitions of the Virgin Mary.  One of the three children’s final resting place is in the church at Fatima – a pretty impressive place.  Our next stop is Nazare, a popular seaside resort known for its 100-foot waves – yes, one hundred feet high!!!   It is a surfers’ Mecca, although some have lost their lives to the huge waves.  The big waves come in November and December, so we have a great lunch and see a beautiful coast line.  Our final stop is at the ancient walled-city of Obidos, which was originally a Roman settlement (This is why you travel, we don’t have any Roman settlements in the US).  Interesting side note, the Church of Santa Maria in Óbidos was the setting for the wedding of King Afonso V to his cousin, Princess Isabella of Coimbra in 1441, when they were both still children aged 9 and 10, respectively.  You don’t see that much in the US either!


The next morning we are on our way to the airport and the bitter-sweet journey home – bitter for the end of our amazing adventure, but always good to get to home sweet home.


Thursday: Epiloge of Spain & Portugal Journey and perhaps a ‘Photo Finish’

The Sites of Seville

by Bob Sparrow

Seville Cathedral

Today we head to Seville, but before we get into the ‘cultural center’ of Spain, we stop at an olive oil farm, which produces not the most, but some of the best, olive oil in Spain.  An on-site guide walked us through their olive orchard, as well as their ‘press room’ and gave us the history of the olive farm as well as the process for producing different kinds of olive oil.  At the end of the tour, we go to the tasting room where we sample some of their latest harvests and were able to buy some – can’t wait to try it at home.

It’s back on the bus as we head into Seville, the fourth largest city in Spain.  We check into our hotel, another ‘H10’, which I had not heard of before, but we stayed in several of them on this trip and I’d highly recommend them, especially the rooftop bars!  We visit the Seville Cathedral, which is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, it took over 100 years to build; it is huge and awesome!!!

Columbus tomb in Seville Cathedral

There’s some controversy about where his final resting place is, but the Spaniards claim that the tomb of Christopher Columbus is here in the Seville Cathedral – it is quite a display.  There is no controversy as to the fact that Columbus left from Seville on his famous exploration of the New World.  But, you say, “Seville is 30 miles from the ocean, how can that be?!”  Yes, it is, but it is connected to the ocean by the Guadalquivir River, which is deep and wide enough to handle the largest of Spanish galleons.  In fact, this in-land port was preferred by sailors as it was a great protection against pirates.  A pirate would have to come 30 miles up the river to steal anything and then would have to go back the only way out, which was heavily fortified and in fact blockades could be set up to keep a ship from getting to the ocean.  So, Seville became a very popular and profitable port.  Some of us made the 40-story hike to the top of the church tower, which provided a panoramic view of the entire city as well as a test of the lungs and legs.

Mirador Setas

We next visited Mirador Setas, a huge wooden structure in the middle of the city square, built in 2005.  We were able to walk on it and get some spectacular views of the city, it is quite an interesting structure.  There is a small theater at the bottom of the structure where we watched an amazing video of Spain – very reminiscent of the Disney ride, ‘Soaring Over California’ video where one is ‘flying’ over the city and into several of the historic structures – awesome!!

I don’t recall the name of the restaurant where we had dinner (some Spanish name I think!!), but the meal was possibly the best dinner I’ve ever had – the main dish was salmon, but I was so full with all the delicious tapas that came before it, that I could barely finish it – it was all so delicious, including the wine!

We next have a local guide give us a city tour and then we get do a carriage ride through another part of the city, that took us to Plaza de Espana, Maria Luisa Park and many other sites of interest – beautiful.  Excellent weather the entire time helped make everything that much better.  Prior to dinner we have a flamenco lesson, which was given by a local teacher and showed most of us that we are not even close to being coordinated enough to do this dance.  Our dancing looked more like flamingos than flamenco!   We then go to a theater and see a flamenco show, complete with guitar player, a singer and a male and female dancer.  For me, the dancing was awesome, as was the guitar playing, but the singing left a little to be desired.  It was more whaling than signing.  When the female singer started, Linda turned to me and said, “Someone should fall 911, this person sounds ill”, but others seemed to like it.

Plaza de Espana

For dinner, we were free to go anywhere in the city.  Before I tell you where we went, I need to tell you what our tour guide, Daniel said about being a visitor to a foreign country.  “Know the difference between being a tourist and being a traveler?  We made a few guesses, but he finally told us, “A tourist tries to make the country adapt to him or her, a traveler tries to adapt to the country.”  So, mostly we tried to be ‘travelers’, but after a week of foreign food, we saw a place that had a sign that said, ‘Hamburgers – different, but delicious’; that’s where we had dinner – it was a little different, but delicious!

Next time we leave Spain and head to Portugal . . .


Historic Cordoba

by Bob Sparrow


We head inland to Cordoba, the second oldest city in the world, which once had a population of over one million people, but now has about 325,000.  This city, like much of the surrounding area, was first populated by the Romans (for about two centuries from 200 BC), then it was taken over by the Visigoths (a Germanic state), then occupied by the Muslims from 711 to 1492, then finally taken from the Muslims, in the Reconquista, by the Christians lead by forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.   Lots of history in this city!


But prior to getting to Cordoba, we visit the ancient city of Ronda, which sits on two spectacular cliffs connected by the visually spectacular Puente Vuevo (New Bridge).  After a stroll through the town, it has been arranged with a local family, that we would have lunch at their house.  The husband, who is a professional chef prepares our meal and his wife tells us about the town and how she grew up there.  Of course, the first order taken was for beer or wine, then a magnificent array of food was presented in about 4-5 courses – I can’t even discribe the food, but it all were very tasty!  Then back on the bus, Gus and off to Cordoba.

Lunch at Ronda home

On the outskirts of Cordoba we stop and visit a horse ranch and get a tour of the facilities and a training demonstration.  The horses are magnificent and range in breed from Arabians, French and Spanish Andalusians.  These horses are bred for show not for racing and they are beautiful, well-disciplined animals.  We thought we might get to see one of of the Andalusians give birth, but she wasn’t quite ready, and those things cannot be rushed.  One of the other really cool things to see at work were the Border Collie dogs that worked with the trainers to keep the horses in line – amazing!  We had another great dinner – maybe at the end of this trip I’ll try to sum up the variety of food we’ve been treated to – it’s different than what we get at home and excellent!


The highlight of any tour to Cordoba is the magnificent Mezquita, which was a Muslim Mosque turned into a Catholic Cathedral when the Christians defeated the Moors to take over the city.  At the time we arrive in Cordoba the ‘Annual Fair’ was going on this week, which helps clear the city streets, as everyone is on the outskirts of town at the fair, well, most everyone, there’s still a lot of people roaming around and we see a lot of pretty ladies dress in full-length, colorful flamenco dresses going through town.  The other event that just took place here is the ‘patio judging’, where anyone who wants to participate can fill their typical four-walled patio with flowers and other decorations to win prize money.  We get a chance to see some of the top patios – very cool.  We are told that watering all the plants in one of these patios typically takes between 2.5 – 3 hours a day!  Dinner on our own is schedule at a great restaurant in the Jewish section of town.  Fortunately, they put us in our own room as we tend to get quite noisy, which we did this night.  Well, bottomless wine was included with the dinner, so we didn’t want to make them feel bad about not drinking their wine, so we made sure we had plenty.  As I’m getting ready to start talking about going to Seville, I forgot that, in Malaga, we ate at Antonio Banderas’ restaurant,  El Pimpi; he wasn’t there, but the food was very good!  Back to Cordoba so we can head to Seville – I think that Spanish wine is affecting my memory.

Next is Spain’s ‘Cultural Center’ – Seville . . . I think!

An Andalusian Adventure

by Bob Sparrow

Here Comes the Sun – on sale this week!

My Spanish isn’t that good, but I do know that Costa del Sol, which is the area we’re going to, means something like ‘sunny coast’, but we are greeted in Malaga (pronounced MAL-a-ga) by a rainstorm.  But it’s a light shower that goes away shortly after we get there, so we decide to stretch our legs and go for a walk down to the marina, as Malaga sits on the Mediterranean Sea.  It is a Sunday with lots of people out strolling, but very few shops are open.  The marina holds one particular boat that gets our attention, named Here Comes the Sun after the Beatles song, written by George Harrison; it’s simply spectacular AND we discovered that it’s for sale – only $195,000,000!

Coast line of Malaga

We’re back at our hotel by 5:00 to meet up with our guide and the 10 other people, some from the U.S. some from other parts of the world, who will be joining us on the rest of our journey.  At our meeting we enjoy several tapas dishes and some beer, wine or sangria as our guide, Daniel, who is very entertaining, introduces himself and goes through the travel agenda and some rules for the group.  The first rule he mentions is, we are not going to be on ‘Spanish time’, which is, if you’re supposed to be somewhere at 7:00, you can show up at 7:30 and not be ‘late’, and you can even show up at 7:45 and you’re still ‘on time’.  He says we’re going to be more like Germans on this tour, SHOW UP ON TIME, or you will be left behind!

After our ‘Meet and Greet’, we head across the ‘No River’ – that’s not the real name, but rather what our guide called it, because there is very seldom any water in it – to a hotel that has a rooftop bar 10 stories up.  And so we get an excellent view of the city and harbor as we have a nightcap or two, share some stories and watch the sun go down.  A great ending to what started out as a rainy day.

One of Picasso’s last paintings

Monday morning, we met our ‘local guide’, a delightful, well-informed woman named Lourdes, who knows her way through the narrow, maze-like streets of this city like the back of her hand, while pointing out historical and other interesting sites, with a great sense of humor.  Our first stop was a giant food market – it’s fairly quiet because it was Sunday and fishermen do not work on Sunday, but the market was still full of all kinds of fruits, vegetables and meats (mostly pig) and we had a chance to taste some delicious olives and nuts as well as watching a carving craftsman cut razor-thin slices of pork and package them for sale.  We also got to see the special carriages created for Holy Week, one holding the Virgin Mary and the other holding the coffin of Jesus.  The city’s architecture reflects the interesting history of Andalucía with its influence of Roman, Arabic and Catholic culture.  The food here is different and amazing; we usually ate small plates of a variety of food – tapas.  Yes, there were times when I hankered for a nice steak or some good pasta, but the food was amazing.

Our afternoon tour was highlighted by the Picasso Museum; as famous, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga. Our tour guide, Lourdes, was an expert on Picasso’s life and art, so the museum really came alive for us with her as our guide.  We finished the evening with another creative, tapas dinner and then at another rooftop bar, just across the river from our hotel, where stories of the days’ activities were shared.

All white Frigiliana

The next morning, after breakfast, we were on a bus for a day-trip to Frigiliana and Nerja.  Frigiliana is one of the most beautiful ‘white villages’ of Andalusia; no it’s not made up of only white people, but rather every building in this village overlooking the Mediterranean, is painted white as it gets quite hot here and the white color helps deflect the sun’s heat.  We see homes and shops stacked together on this hillside as we walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of this picturesque village.

Nerja caves

Our next stop on this day-trip is the town of Nerja, while this city is called the ‘Balcony of Europe, as it sits on a cliff with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean, the main attraction in the town are the caves.  Huge caves that now have stairs in them so that you can go down several hundred feet, but the ceilings are high, in fact this is the home to the world’s largest stalactites.  Awesome!!  I’ll insert a photo here, but I’m sure it won’t do the place justice.

Back to Malaga for our last dinner in town on our own, then get lost in the maze that is Malaga on our way home.  But we made it.  Malaga has moved into contention as one of my favorite cities in the world.  Great food, great wine, great people!

More to come after Memorial Day week



Off to Madrid

by Bob Sparrow


One typically doesn’t look forward to 13 hours in the air plus another three or four sitting around an airport waiting, and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to the ‘getting there’ part of this journey to Madrid, but I have to say, this trip was pretty painless.  Two reasons: 1) our group of ten travelers was always entertaining, typically grabbing the attention of those around us with our laughter, either in the airport or on the plane, and 2) British Airways, which has now become my favorite airline.  From Los Angeles to London, we were in ‘Economy Plus’, which had the benefits of a little more legroom and unlimited free alcohol.  And it seemed that the more unlimited alcohol we had the more unlimited fun we had.  Since our seats were not together, but rather spread throughout the Economy Plus area, our conversations with each other were spread across the entire section and seemed to get the rest of the passengers involved in our good time.  Making it even better was that the flight attendants handling our section were good, fun and funny.   Love British Airways!

Rooftop bar at Puerta de Alcala

Once landing in Madrid and met by our bus driver, we walked what seemed several miles to get to the bus as buses are not allowed to pick up outside of where the luggage is picked up.  Not sure why.  We get to our beautiful hotel, Puerta de Alcala in Madrid, around 6:00 pm local time, which is 9 hours ahead of California.  We all had varying amounts of sleep on our redeye flight, so we decided to catch a quick nap, change the clothes that we’d been wearing for the last 24 hours, and were now a bit ‘gamey’, and meet at the hotel’s rooftop bar at 7:30 for dinner.

The rooftop bar at sunset was spectacular as was our server.  We had our first introduction to tapas as we ordered 10-12 different dishes ranging from Peruvian chicken to octopus – complemented by various drinks including some very nice Spanish Rioja wine, all very delicious.  A night cap in the downstairs bar and our body’s said, “I don’t know what time you think it is, but I need some rest!”

Madrid’s finest

After a good night’s sleep and a great buffet breakfast at the hotel, we met our tour guide, Eva, who would be taking us on a walking tour of Madrid.  We walked through all parts of the city (six hours worth), seeing the palace, the world-famous museum, the park, the opera house, all the major sites in Madrid, with Eva giving us great detail on the history of this magnificent city.  It’s really hard to imagine the amazing architecture and relate it to America, where something in the US is an antique if it’s one to two hundred years old; here, there are things that are thousands of years old.

Before we head out to dinner at a restaurant just a few blocks away, we meet at the hotel bar and have each person tell the group what their favorite part of the day was.  While the guys listed things like the palace, the museum, a great deli, the girls were most interested in the young, studly, local police officers who were guarding the congressional building.  OK, maybe it wasn’t their favorite, but it was close!

Dinner in Madrid

We walked to our restaurant for our 7:30 reservation; the place was empty except for one other couple.  Again, another great dinner of salmon, veal, Ox tail, along with some great olives and bread.  By the time we left at 9:30, the place was packed and people were still coming in for dinner.  After dinner we wandered the streets for a bit, stopped to have a drink and discovered a Michelin three-star restaurant and made a reservation for tomorrow night.

Our last day in Madrid is ‘on our own’, so the group scatters to all part of the city; with everyone hitting the Prada Museum, as it holds one the world’s greatest collection of art; works from Raphael, Ruben, Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, Rembrandt, just to name a few.  I was amazed at the size of the paintings; many of them were 8-10 feet wide and 12-14 feet high, some bigger.  After the museum we walked another couple of miles through the city to eat lunch at the ‘World’s Oldest Restaurant’ – it’s been open since 1725, but we needed to make a reservation as it was Saturday and the city was buzzing with activity, so we never got in, but the Warrens and the Webbs made it, as we saw them dining there when we arrived.  Then back to the hotel for a little rest before we topped off the evening with dinner at a Michelin 3-star restaurant within walking distance from our hotel.  After tapas for two days, a nice steak tasted mighty good!

Malaga without the rain

Sunday is ‘moving day, so it’s up early for breakfast then a bus to the train station and a two-and-a-half-hour train ride to Malaga, where our ‘official Collette ‘Spain coast/Portuguese Riviera Tour’ starts.   We arrived around 1:00 pm in a fairly heavy rainstorm, check into our hotel and meet up with the other travelers at the ‘Welcome Meeting’.

Next report is on Thursday

Spain, Portugal and Topless Bars

by Bob Sparrow

Spain & Portugal

In my next missive, I’ll be coming to you from somewhere in Spain or Portugal and as I’ve prepared for this six-couple, 16-day trip, I have, of course, researched the major cities we will be visiting – Madrid, Malaga, Ronda (Help me!!), Seville, Lisbon, Cascais, Sintra and Fatima.  You’ll be hearing highlights from each of these burgs as we visit them.  But what has really kept me busy these last few weeks is learning the amazing history of the ‘Iberian Peninsula’.  To wit:

  • Spain was once THE most powerful country in the world; it had spread its influence to North, Central and South America as well as taking over the Philippines for over 300 years. It has left a whole lot of people, all over the world, speaking Spanish.  While this phrase is more commonly attributed to the English, the Spanish Empire was the first where the sun never set.
  • The modern world’s first novel, Don Quixote, was written by Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Moors (Muslims), from northern Africa, invaded what is now Spain and Portugal and ruled the area for 800 years, from the early 8th century to the late 15th century, when they were ultimately defeated by Christian invaders.
  • Spain has over 600 ‘Blue Flag’ beaches (meets environmental standards), more than another other country in the

    Friendly & Fuzzy Franco

    Northern Hemisphere.

  • Although they met only days before their ‘arranged’ marriage in 1467, the wedding of Ferdinand of Aragon, who was 19, and Isabella of Castile, who was 18, unified Spain as they ruled for the next 30 years.
  • The Spanish Inquisition was intended primarily to identify heretics among those who converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism. According to modern estimates, around 150,000 people were prosecuted for various offences during its three-century duration
  • Spain has more bars than any other European country. However, I’m sure you can appreciate my disappointment when I finally realized they were talking about ‘tapas bars’, not topless bars!
  • The famous or infamous, Generalissimo Franco, was a dictator of Spain from 1938 – 1973. Yes, Spain was under a dictatorship in the ‘70s!!  During World War II, Spain remained neutral, but supported Hitler, because he supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  Franco’s use of forced labor, concentration camps, executions and wartime killings created a death toll in the range of 420,000!

    “It’s a tapas bar, NOT a topless bar, you idiot!”

  • Portugal was the first country to practice ‘colonialism’; from the 15th century on for the next 600 years, they started creating colonies in Africa, South America, North America, Oceania, and South Asia.
  • Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan was the first to find a route to East Asia through the Americas in 1519.
  • Vasco da Gama, another Portuguese explorer, was the first European to reach India by sea, thus linking Europe to Asia.
  • Fatima is the Portugal city where, as the story goes, three shepherds allegedly spotted the Virgin Mary in their fields in 1917. Since then, the number of pilgrims to Fatima run from about six to eight million every year.
  • Porto, Portugal houses the world’s most stunningly beautiful MacDonald’s restaurant  complete  with  an  elegant  chandelier.

    Portugal McDonald’s

  • There is at least one of our travel companions who wants to take a serious look at Portugal real estate – its climate is very similar to Southern California, it has great people, great beaches and great food – lots of ex-Pats there! So, if I’m not back by June 1st, you’ll know where to look for me.

OK, it’s difficult to try and summarize the historical highlights of these two ancient and amazing countries in a 600-word blog, so just plan to come along with us and see for yourself, without the hassle of delayed flights, luggage being lost or trying to figure out what not to wear to a topless bar.