Travelogue: Western Europe escapade

(Part 1 of 3)
An underrated personal investment and oftentimes a lavish opportunity many are deprived of, traveling is an excellent escape from reality… a luxurious trek that offers more-than-life know-how while simultaneously broadening one’s awareness about people, places and events around the world…thus, bringing forth a renewed lifestyle and restructured direction.
They say: “The world is a book and those who do not travel have read only one page.” Others still insist: “There’s no frigate like a book, so what’s the use of going places?” Though a lot would counteract: “Have money, will travel…!” Yeah, it’s all about the huge amount of money that entails with travel.
But traveling doesn’t necessarily mean to overly spend. One could adjust to what is affordable and practical. A nearby city perhaps or some preserved historical edifices and churches, or a dream state across the coast could be sensible options…just so to have even a brief respite.
Early in life, hodophobia (an irrational and intense fear of traveling) constantly held me back from any adventurous exploration especially aboard an aircraft or any form of water vessel only to realize the great amount of information and experiences I was missing.
Yes, there are reading materials, movies, documentaries, and the like but there’s no alternative for traveling since it is where the real action is… and that eventually distorted my “primitive” concept and judiciously paved the way to more unambiguous perspectives.
Breaking out of my shell gave me a better understanding of what life on the other side of the world really is. Aside from feeding my insights with first hand information, traveling provided me with a better understanding of existence and survival. And that, an exceptional occurrence of the interconnectedness of humanity even through merely a smile, an effortless head tilt, or a handshake gave me a strange feeling of belongingness.
And yes, traveling could be addictive. My wife and I were instantly hooked after joining a tour group twice and that we’ve already toyed the idea of exploring Eastern Europe ironically while waiting to board British Airways 188 at the Newark Liberty International Airport for Spain.
First sojourn: Madrid, Spain
September 30 to October 2
A jocular group of sixteen (majority were retired nurses) with a few familiar faces who used to be our traveling companions way back in 2015 and 2016, restlessly awaited for boarding time. A roll call was initiated by our tour organizer Josette Loredo for assurance that not a single soul had gone astray: Helen Latoja, Sabiniana Limbaro, Rebecca Nicdao, Celia Sagun, Norma Trinidad, Nene Baculi, Lourdes Catalan, Claire St. Julien, Daisy B. Marcelino, Bien F. Marcelino, Teresa Uy, Dawn Martinez, Reynaldo Villa, Venny D. Yalong, and me.
Flight info: Departed Newark: September 30 at 9:30 PM  Arrived London 9:20 AM October 1
Departed London Heathrow at 2:05 PM (British Airways 460)
Arrived Madrid at 5:30 PM
Time Difference: Newark and London – 5 hours ahead
Newark and Madrid – 6 hours ahead
London and Madrid, Spain – Madrid is 1 hour ahead of London
The protracted travel time (7 hours from Newark to London plus 5 grueling hours of layover at Heathrow Airport and another 2 ½ hours from London to Madrid) was unbearably draining and exhausting but instantaneously recharged upon sight of Madrid’s elegant boulevards, romantic rotondas, and fine architecture.
We were met at the airport by our tourist guide and driver for the entire duration of our tour:  Patrick Doyle, a fatherly Scottish-Irish but London resident and Jorge Cano Perez, a lean Spanish guy, respectively. Hotel NH Madrid Zurbano along Calle de Zurbano, 79-81 became our first home away from home.
Our tour guide Patrick briefed us on some pertinent information about Spain that indubitably boosted our sense of historical comprehension and learned that: Universidad de Salamanca in northwestern region is the oldest university and key intellectual center in Spain which was founded in the 1100s; that Spain produces more Valencia oranges than California that created the hybrid; and that it was the Arabs who first invaded and took siege of Spain and the nearby countries.
Our first day in Madrid gave us a guided sightseeing from our motorcoach: Puerta del Sol, Plaza de Espana with its monument of Cervantes, the Cibeles Fountain, the stylish Calle Alcala, Paeo de Castellana and the monument of Dr. Jose Rizal. The day’s highlight was a visit to the world renowned Museo Nacional del Prado which houses the priceless art and treasures of Spain dating from the 12th century to the renaissance period particularly the artworks of Francisco Goya, Domenikos Theotokopoulos aka El Greco, Francisco Herrera, Diego Velazquez, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and Salvador Dali. Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) was added to the museum in 1981.
Currently the museum boasts of 8,200 drawings, 7,600 paintings, 4,800 prints, and 1,000 sculptures.
The other popular museum that we failed to visit was The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia which is Spain’s national museum of the 20th century art.
After lunch we resumed our trip to the walled town of Avila, 88 km. from Madrid and about an hour and a half drive, where St. Theresa founded the Order of the Carmelites Sisters. Located in the autonomous community of Castile and Leon, Avila claims to have the highest number of Romanesque and Gothic churches in Spain that made it to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in 1985.We visited the Cathedral, the Convent of Santa Teresa, and the Monastery of La Encarnacion.
We were billeted at Hotel Fontecruz Avila (along Carretera Antigua de Cabreros)    for the night with a sumptuous dinner.
October 3 and 4, Fatima, Portugal
The centenary celebration of the Fatima Apparition
We left Avila after breakfast and by 8:00 AM we’re already Portugal-bound…a long 8-hour drive covering 222 miles. We regularly stopped at roadside cafes to dine, refresh, and relieve every after 2 hours. The fascinating panoramic views and majestic sceneries of Serra da Estrela mountain range brightened our extensive road trip made even endurable when we stopped at Fuentes de Honoro in Salamanca for snack and shopping.
The group arrived at Fatima, Portugal at almost sundown and ushered at the Hotel Estrella de Fatima (Rua Conego Nunes Formigao), a four-star hotel strategically located just across the Basilica’s patio.
Being familiar with the place (been here last October 2015), I excitedly revisit recognizable tiendas and stalls for souvenir items even before dinner. The group joined the evening’s rosary and candlelight procession at the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine.
The following day awaited a hectic schedule. As early as 8, we were met by our tour guide for a visit to Aljustrel, the home village of the three shepherds,  Lucia Santos (10) and her cousins Jacinta (7) and Francisco Marto  (9) who were the key players in the Marian apparition at the Cova da Iria fields where they pasture and tend their flock of sheep.
We visited the visionaries birthplaces, their well-preserved houses, the environment where they grew up, the parish church where the visionaries were baptized, the cemetery where the siblings were initially buried, and even met an aging grand niece of Lucia’s sister who, at more than 90 years old, appeared to be in full sanity.
The Fatima phenomenon all the more strengthens the faith of Christian believers all over the world and we were not surprised at all to find millions of pilgrims visiting the shrine and to think it was still a week before the occurrence of the actual event. The much publicized arrival of His Holiness Pope Francis on October 13 to say mass built the excitement even more.
We were given an early break from the tour that allowed us to spend more time shopping for souvenir items.
That evening we escaped from our hotel dinner. I invited Helen, Nene, and Claire (and my wife, of course) to dine at O’Perreira, a modest Portuguese Restaurant known for serving freshly grilled sardines paired with a perfect salad of tomatoes, onions, and olives. Two full platters of sardines failed to suffice our craving and another was impetuously ordered. Actually we discovered the place when we first went to Fatima two years ago and swore to be back, not only for the most venerated icon but for the sardines. We were warmly welcomed back (they recognized us instantly) by the father and son that manage the eatery… and even accommodated us for some souvenir shots just like how we posed before.
Retreated late to bed with the anticipation of another long journey after breakfast the following morning… another exciting trip awaits….!
Next issue: Back to Spain en route to France.
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