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Toulouse Travel Tips

20 Aug

Capitole Plaza, my hotel on the right

Living in Spain provides me the luxury of being able to travel to nearby places, like Europe and Africa, at very inexpensive costs. I initially explored the idea of travelling in central Spain this August, but it was too hot, and then Prague and Budapest, but the direct flights from where I live were not available in August. Preferring direct flights, which have a decreased chance of delays, I explored other options and decided to go to Toulouse and nearby Carcassonne, which are at the base of the Pyrenees in southern central France, not far north of Andorra. The flight is only about an hour each direction, which cost me €61 each direction, and €72 round trip for my small dog, who traveled in the cabin under the seat in front of me. I spent a week in the Toulouse area.

 

Typical building

Toulouse is the fourth largest metropolitan area in France, and the Occitanie area (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon) in which it and Carcassonne are located is the largest geographical region in France. Toulouse is known as the “pink city,” due to the many buildings made of pink stone and bricks. It is a walk-friendly city with distinct neighborhoods, which are the types of large cities I favor. When I first arrived, I stayed for three days at the Grand Hotel Opera, centrally-located on the large Capitole Plaza. It was a good starting spot, with cafes and restaurants serving drinks, snacks and higher-end cuisine. I do not like shopping, but there were a variety of shops/stores on or near the plaza, surprisingly including a number of U.S. stores like Sephora and Foot Locker, and other popular European stores.

 

Before I arrive at vacation destination, I try to get a basic familiarity with the areas and places I would most like to visit. I am a foodie, so I read up on the typical regional cuisine, recommended restaurants, as well as live entertainment. Obviously once I arrive, I get a better feel for the area, and make my plans accordingly, but I leave room for a great deal of spontaneity which can result in serendipitous finds. One such occasion occurred when I walked to the local fruit and vegetable market, where I decided to have lunch at one of the many nearby restaurants. I noticed it was cloudy and looked like it could rain, so I found a restaurant, Le point Gourmet, with a good awning coverage of the outdoor area, and most importantly, good food.  I was too late to get the daily special of duck hearts, fresh from the market, as they were already sold out. But my duck breast, duck-fat fried pommes frites (French fries), and salad were delicious.

 

Seafood pasta

While sitting at the restaurant and waiting for my food, it started raining. Many of the diners not under cover frantically arose, trying to grab food, beverages and belongings. Most handled it with aplomb and humor, but one family where I was dining, got into an argument with the owner, which became quite heated. After they diners left, the French owner, who spoke very good English, (I only speak English and Spanish), said the three patrons were blaming him for the rain, and he replied he was not God. He correctly mentioned that there was only a brief rain, and the patrons nonetheless said they would not pay for the food. There was some more heated discussion, with their continued verbal attacks and complaint about their mother being disabled, to which the owner said his wife, who was still working long hours at the restaurant, had cancer. They finally left. The owner then told me the following story: “God made France, with beautiful landscapes, oceans, vegetation and so on. When he finished, God said, France is perfect, everything. It is too perfect, so I am going to put French people there.” Hilarious!

 

Salade Gourmande

The food in the Toulouse area is regionally-based, as is common in Europe. They are famous for their cassoulet, foie gras, sausages, many types of offal (veal kidneys, gizzards, hearts, and sweetbreads), fantastic variety of cheeses, predictably delicious bread and baked goods. Most places offer quality, affordably-priced prix fixe menus, not as inexpensive as where I live in Spain, but far cheaper than you would pay for comparable food in the U.S. Also, the regional wines are excellent, usually inexpensive, and frequently available in varying amounts like 15 ml, 50 ml, and 75 ml (respectively, a glass, a little more than a half bottle, and a full bottle.) For those who live in Spain, Toulouse does not cafés on every block or even several on every block like there are in Spain, which I realized when I looked for a place to duck into when it started to rain.

 

Statue Joan of Arc

The other thing I did not anticipate were the operating and closing hours for businesses, with many shops closed either in the afternoons or early in the evening, and also many places, including restaurants, are closed on Sundays, holidays and during parts or all of August.  I failed to check the holiday schedule before I booked my vacation, only to learn that there was a religious holiday, Assumption Day, in which many businesses were shuttered.

 

The Toulouse and greater Occitanie area offer numerous entertainment and outdoor activities. In Toulouse, there are the expected ancient and historical buildings and museums. There was a jazz concert series during the summer featured such icons as George Benson and Wynton Marsalis. The Garonne River and Canal du Midi offer great spots for events and leisure. There and in the Montagne Noire, nearby mountain range, offer opportunities for outdoor and physical activity enthusiasts. Winery tours in the region is another popular and easy day trip from Toulouse. Toulouse also boasts Europe’s largest space center, which also offers venues oriented toward children.

 

Garonne River

After my first three days in Toulouse, I took the short 45 minute train ride to the walled city of Carcassonne, where I spent the night, at the fabulous 5-star Hôtel de la Cité and ate at their Michelin-star restaurant, Barbacane, which I will write about in a subsequent blog post. I also plan to share my restaurant reviews from Toulouse which I will publish on TripAdvisor: they recently reported I have over 100,000 readers of my reviews!

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Top Five Things To Do in Elche Spain

6 Aug
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View from the top of Altamira Castle of Basilica of Santa Maria

Located in the southern area of the Valencian Community, just south of Alicante, Elche makes a great one or two day trip. It is the third largest city in the Valencian Community, with Valencia and Alicante being more populated. The Palmeral de Elche (the Palm Grove of Elche), which consists of approximately 200,000 palm trees, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is one of the main draw for tourists.

The area is believed to have been settled by Greeks, then Carthaginians and Romans, followed by others including several centuries of Moorish rule. The city offers a mix of nature, history, an engaging city centre, and the option of lovely beaches and great shopping, with over 1000 shoe factories!

 

The following are my recommendations for the best sites to visit:

 

  1. I recommend starting at the Museo Arqueológico y de Historia de Elche (MAHE), located in the Altamira Castle, built during the 12th to 13th century. The museum provides visual, written, and verbal information on the history of the area in displays which provide a summary of each of the periods of occupation. The most famous archaeological find was the statue “The Lady of Elche,” believed to be from the Iberians in the 4th century. A copy is on display, with the original being in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid, which is a source of contention for the people of Elche who believe it should be returned to Elche. During my tour of the museum, I found the succinct overviews of each era to afford adequate information without museum fatigue. The MAHE facility is modern and mostly accessible, with the exception of the very top of the castle. Take those remaining stairs to reach the top of the castle for a panoramic view of the city and the adjacent Palmeral.
  2. As soon as you exit the MAHE, you will find part of the Palmeral, and the municipal park. The Palmeral is thought to be established during the 5th century by the Carthaginians. Sophisticated irrigation systems were added during the Arab occupation during the 10th century. It is the only such palm grove in Europe, and the northernmost such palm garden. In this part of the Palmeral, there are paths where one can observe the varying vegetation, ponds, swans, historic buildings, a restaurant, exercise stations, playgrounds, and more. The Palmeral is not only confined to this area, but is spread around the city. There are maps available at the Tourist Office or hotels, which provide suggested paths to view the palms.
  3. Across the street from the MAHE and Palmeral is the city centre where there are a number of visit-worthy historical sites. The Basilica of Santa Maria has layers of history, with a beautiful Valenciana Baroque façade. Originally a Mosque, after the Reconquista, a Catholic Church, probably Gothic style, was built. It was here that the liturgical drama, Misteri, Elche Mystery Play, was first presented. In 2001, it was declared a UNESCO “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” and is performed every August in conjunction with the Assumption of Saint Mary. Later the church was rebuilt with different styles over the centuries, eventually with the current emblematic regional blue tile domes.
  4. Nearby the Calahorra Tower, built in the 13th century in the Amohade style, was the most important entry gate to Elche, with the road leading to Alicante. Note the shape at the base of the Calahorra is wider to provide structural stability. However, this did not prevent severe earthquake damage in 1829, which resulted in the loss of the two upper floors. On the surviving back wall, there is a colorful vertical garden, flanked by a gastro-restaurant, which is an inviting place for a meal or refreshing drink.
  5. The Huerto de la Cura is a 12,000 square meter garden displaying Mediterranean and tropical plants. It is famous for its Imperial Palm, which features a unique date palm with seven branches. It got its name from a visit by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sissi, in 1894. The park’s inviting paths, plants, and ponds provide an enchanting and tranquil respite. There is a souvenir area where you can buy plants and regional food and craft items.

    Seven branch Imperial Palm

    Seven branch Imperial Palm

Quality, Bargain Travel within Europe

8 May

Water Wheel: Treviso

While I loved my new life as an ex-pat in the lovely Mediterranean village of Altea, Spain, I relish the opportunity to affordably travel to other destinations. For my most recent trip, I went to Venice, Paris, then back to where I live, with all three flights costing only 150 Euros.

 

There are many low-cost options available for transportation and accommodations. My original plan was to go to central Spain to the historic, beautiful and interesting cities of Salamanca (with arguably the most beautiful plaza in Spain), Segovia (with its intact Roman Aqueduct), and Avila (with its intact medieval city wall), all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spain has the second most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after China.

 

Piazza San Marco

However, getting to those locations from where I live is not easy to do in a timely manner via train or flight. I did not want to rent a car or take ride-sharing Bla Bla Car. As I did not want to spend many hours to get to my destinations, I looked at the direct (non-stop) flights that departed and arrived from the two airports closest to me, Valencia and Alicante. Originally I found direct flights from my preferred airport of Alicante to many destinations, and I decided to go to Venice, then Paris, then home to Alicante airport. I also checked for airlines and hotels that accepted dogs, as I initially planned to take my small dog, Pepper. I subsequently decided not to take him because it would preclude us from going to events like the ballet in Paris, or restaurants which have only indoor seating.

 

Often flight, bus and other transportation schedules within Spain and Europe are not published until a few months before departure. Whereas my initial search found direct flights from Alicante to Venice, when I went to book it, there were no scheduled flights for March, none until July. Being flexible and willing to search for other options can yield reasonable alternatives. I was going to meet my son in Venice on a Sunday in March, and all the flights with more than one leg took a ridiculous length of time. I then found a flight the prior day, a Saturday, to Treviso, which is only a mere 30 minutes train ride to the Venice train terminal for only 3,40 Euros. I decided to get a hotel in Treviso, “The City of Art and Water,” that Saturday and explore the town, which has interesting history and culture. The next day, I strolled around town before heading to Venice. Of course, I had researched, and where necessary, scheduled all the connecting ground transportation for the whole trip. That was not necessary for the train from Treviso to Venice. In Italy, (and some other European countries), after you purchase your ticket, you must validate it in one of the machines on the wall or you risk getting a large fine when they train staff check your ticket.

 

As private water taxis are very expensive in Venice, as are taxies in Paris, I scheduled them on Alilaguna, a group water taxi for about 14 Euros one way and 25 Euros roundtrip, and Blacklane for a roundtrip private transfer from Paris Orly airport to our hotel in the Plaza Vendôme area for about 50 Euros each way.

 

One unexpected issue we had on the flight from Venice to Paris on Transavia was just as we got to the staff to present our boarding passes we were told we could only have one carry-on, and that we would have to put any other items including my purse in my carry-on suitcase, which was already stuffed full. I had to throw out a few items in order for my purse to fit. All three flights were about two hours. It was the first time I had taken low cost airlines, and found them organized, and comfortable enough.

 

We enjoyed stops in historic churches, art museums, live music venues, and public gardens. Included in this article are some of the interesting sites we saw on this trip.

 

For me, one of the many considerations, albeit not the most major, in making a decision to move to Spain was the ease and cost of travelling to relatively nearby European and African countries.

 

 

 

Terrorism and Travel

22 Mar

Gothic Sainte-Chapelle stained glass

A shooting involving a terrorist at Paris’ Orly Airport, while I was going through the security check there, was an anticlimactic end to my 60th birthday celebration in Venice and Paris with my middle son, Michael. Orly is France’s second largest airport. Just before I was scheduled to board my flight home to Alicante, Spain, I noticed the departure gate had changed to the downstairs departure area. As I tried to go to the new departure gate, the airport security officers told me there would be no more flights that day from Orly. Without explanation, they corralled us into the far half of the boarding area, not allowing anyone to leave. The televisions were switched off, and the departure screens frozen, which continued for several hours. We never received any notification from airport staff as to what was occurring, but I googled “Orly news” where I learned that a terrorist had tried to wrestle a gun from an airport police officer, and that he was shot. I did not learn the details until after returning home. Even though I had been told around 845 a.m. that there would be no further flights from Orly that day, around mid-day, without any speaker announcement, the boarding boards were turned back on, although without accurate, updated information on departure times. We finally boarded and departed around 330 p.m. As I write this on March 22, 2017, there has been a terrorist attack in London near the Parliament, and possibly inside.

 

There is no place in the world in which one is free from the possibility to violence, terrorism or even natural

Sacré Couer

disasters. In 1998, not long after the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, my oldest son and I went to Nairobi and then on safari the Tsavo Park area. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know that the attack was part of an organized terrorist organization. Not long after an American Airlines flight crashed in Queens, a borough in New York, in November 2001, only two months after New York’s September 2001 attacks, we flew to Europe. It was initially speculated the crash could have been a terrorist attack, but it was later determined to be caused by human error. During a tour of eight African countries, while in Bamako, Mali, the nation’s capital, we stayed at a hotel, where several years later, in spite of security, Islamist extremists took 170 people hostage, shooting 20.

 

Enjoying live classical and Brazilian music at Venice’s Caffè Florian, reported to be the oldest café in the world, dating back to 1720

That said, as a psychologist, particularly a forensic psychologist where we rely heavily on statistics, I make informed decisions based on statistics rather than irrational fears. By far, I have a significantly greater chance of being killed by violence, particularly in the U.S., or by disease, or accidents. I choose to live my life with joie de vivre, focusing on relationships, food, culture, adventure, and curiosity. And if I should meet my end in a travelling accident, for me, that is far better than being holed up in my home or a bunker, or living my life in fear. To that end, I will be providing future blog posts on my Venice and Paris trip, and am providing a sampling of those photos here.

Three Days in Enchanting Granada

24 Apr
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The Alhambra

 

As previously arranged, the last Muslim ruler in Spain, Boadbil, reluctantly handed over the key to the spectacular Alhambra to the Spanish monarchy on January 1, 1492. No matter how much I have read about the Alhambra, I was still gobsmacked by it, from its size and beauty, intricate carvings, water features, gardens and the overall grand, but tranquil, enchanting ambience. By 1238, with the taking of Cordoba from the Moors, the Spanish “Reconquista” had regained all of Spain with the exception of Granada. Under a peace agreement with the Spanish monarchy, Granada flourished. Under Moorish rule, the site of the Alhambra was used as a fortress, and in the 13th century the Nasrid Dynasty began building the Alhambra complex. Any attempt to provide an accurate portrayal of the Alhambra will be woefully inadequate in describing its unique architecture and beauty. The Generalife, the nearby country gardens and buildings on the Alhambra’s northern area are perched higher, resulting in a cooler, inviting respite for the Nasrid rulers and their associates. A view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, Spain’s tallest mountain range, can be enjoyed from the Generalilfe. I recommend the tour of both the Alhambra and Generalife, which takes around 4 ½ hours. Be sure to purchase your tickets well in advance as tickets are often sold out, arrive early, and wear comfortable walking shoes and bring shade from the sun.

 

 

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Palace of Charles V

 

After more than 250 years of rule under the Moors, King Fernando and Queen Isabel fought to restore Granada to Spain, which they succeeded in doing on January 1, 1492. The Alhambra was spared from the usual destruction and/or conversion to Christian buildings, which makes it a unique attraction. However, their grandson, Charles V, built a palace in the Renaissance style within the walls of the Alhambra, which makes for an odd, but interesting juxtaposition to the Moorish designs. This building houses museums of Spanish-Islamic Art and Bella Artes (Fine Arts.)

 

 

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Albaicín and El Sacromonte

The Albaicín is the Moorish old city, which faces and provides one of the many fantastic views of the Alhambra. The Albaicín has a jumble of narrow streets and historic homes called Carmenes, the latter which consist of external high walls to provide privacy and internal fountains, patios and inviting living spaces. The Albaicín church of San Nicolas is a popular destination, and its plaza affords panoramic views. In the hills just above the Albaicín is the El Sacromonte, the caves where gypsies live and perform flamenco shows.

 

 

In 1523, work began on Granada’s Cathedral, which is massive and opulent, featuring both Gothic and Renaissance architecture created by a series of several architects during the 181 years during which it was constructed. It is one of the largest Cathedrals in Europe. It has a gold and white interior and features a circular capilla mayor (sanctuary) with five naves and multiple chapels. Its stained glass dome, large chorale books, and huge pipe organs are also noteworthy. Adjacent and joined to the Cathedral is the Capilla Real, the Royal Chapel, which was built for the royal monarchs between 1506 and 1521. It houses an ornate grille enclosing the altar and the marble sculptures of Fernando and Isabel, their daughter, Juana La Loca and her husband Felipe el Hermoso. Their coffins lay in the crypt below the marble figures. Both facilities offer works of famous artists.

 

Plaza Nueva is the oldest square in Granada, and a good place for a beverage, tapa and people-watching. One of my favorite spots is Bodega Catañeda, a rustic, authentic tapas spot for local jamones (hams), creative dishes, and sherry. There are many eateries serving authentic Moroccan and Arabic food. Granada is fairly compact, so walking or taking a cab are the best options for getting around.

 

 

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Bodegas Castaneda

Since moving to Spain, I have happily taken advantage of the opportunity to explore the country’s diverse and unique attractions, including many UNESCO world heritage sites. For this special venue in Granada, I splurged and stayed at the 14th century Parador within the walls of the Alhambra. In Spain, a parador is a historic or scenic building which the Spanish government has converted into an inn or hotel. The parador at the Alhambra has been described as the best or one of the best in Spain. Queen Isabel and King Fernando were initially buried on the site, while the Royal Chapel was being built in Granada as their final resting place. The parador was a former monastery built on orders of the royal monarchs on a site which was originally a mosque. This parador provides an inviting, tranquil respite after exploring the Alhambra and the City of Granada, and its intriguing history and delicious local foods.

 

 

 

 

 

Alluring Alicante: Top Stops

4 Apr
Alicante with Santa Barbara Castle on the hill

Alicante with Santa Barbara Castle on the hill

Living in the beautiful, low-cost Mediterranean area of Spain known as the Costa Blanca offers many advantages, not the least of which is the opportunity to travel to enticing, affordable historical and cultural places in the country. Since moving to the Costa Blanca, I have been enjoying nearby venues, all within about an hour’s drive. Almost everything in Alicante is centrally located, so no vehicle is needed once you arrive, although local trams are available if one wants to explore outlying areas.

 

The cosmopolitan area, now known as Alicante, has been inhabited over 7000 years, with periods of rule by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors. One of the iconic sites visible from much of the city of Alicante is the hilltop Santa Bárbara Castle, which dates back to the period of Muslim rule starting in the 8th century. It was named for the saint day on which Castilian forces captured it on December 4, 1248. Over the centuries it endured many captures and bombardments, and was sometimes used as a prison. After a period of disuse, it was opened to the public. Entry is free, but there is a small fee to use the elevators to get to the top, or one can walk to the top. The panoramic view is spectacular.

 

Alicante Barrio

Alicante Barrio

Located near the Santa Bárbara Castle, is El Barrio, “the Old Quarter,” which features narrow pedestrian streets, with colorful homes and flowers, a photographer’s delight. There are numerous interesting historic buildings including St. Mary’s Church, built between the 14th to 16th centuries on top of a former mosque. Its ornate baroque façade and interior are a worthwhile stop. The Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) is a baroque building located behind the Explanada Park. Besides the beautiful architecture of the exterior, inside there are historic archeological remains, the famous “blue room,” a chapel, and cota cero, a reference point inside the building from where the height of sea levels throughout Spain can be measured.

 

El Barrio also has shops and stores featuring everything from handmade crafts to luxury brands. Leather manufacturing is a major industry in the Alicante area, so inexpensive quality leather products are widely available.

 

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Iconic Explanada

Alicante is well-known for its regional cuisine. There are many dining options, from informal to formal including traditional tapas to innovative gourmet tapas, paellas, fish and seafood, as well as other types of regional Spanish and international cuisines. For foodies, a visit to the Mercado Central will delight the senses with abundant displays of fresh and unique offerings. There are places to purchase prepared food in the market, and cafes just outside. Another area offering quality cuisine is in the marina area, which can be reached by taking a stroll down the Explanada de España, which is the palm-lined walkway along the Mediterranean. It is paved with six and a half million marble floor mosaic tiles laid in such a way as to create a wave-like appearance; many consider this one of the most beautiful beachside walkways in Spain.

 

Spaniards love friends, family, fun, and festivals. To that end, in both the Old Town and in the Marina areas, there are many inviting sidewalk cafes for socialization and rejuvenation during the day, and lively bars or discotheques where people party until the early morning hours.

 

Prices for a nice hotel typically start around 70€; an apartment or vacation rental may be even less expensive with two or more bedrooms, kitchenette, common living areas and laundry facilities; most beverages including wine, beer, water, and soda for around 2€; and menu del dias (two or three course special menu of the day for as low as 10€.)

Day Trip: Historic Guadalest

22 Nov
Iconic Guadalest bell tower

Iconic Guadalest bell tower

Walking through the 1300+ year-old man-made rock hewn tunnel is the only way to get access to the historical and picturesque village of Guadalest, Spain. The town is situated inland within walled fortifications on a pinnacle in the mountains. Historically, it was an important strategic site as its location made it impenetrable. In spite of its inland location and a drive on serpentine, hilly roads, the town is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Spain, with both historic and touristic offerings.

 

The area of Guadalest was occupied by the Moors starting around 715 A.D., and the Alcozaiba Castle was built in the 12th century. All that remains today of that Castle is a restored tower. The Moors brought their traditions of terraced farming, which are visible throughout the surrounding landscape and still widely used in this area of Spain today.

 

The Castle of Guadalest was built during the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. In July of 1644, an earthquake destroyed much of the castle, and in December of that year, much of the town. The castle was further damaged by a bomb during the War of Succession in 1708. The Castle’s hilltop remains are still visible from below, or one take the steep trek to castle ruins.

 

Panoramic view from Guadalest's walled old town

Panoramic view from Guadalest’s walled old town

Other points of interest are the remains of Peñon de Alcala, the watchtower that is located on a rocky peak which juts straight up from the ground, and the jail/dungeon dating back to the 12th century. The charming Baroque-style Catholic Church built in the 18th century was restored after it was burnt and looted during the Spanish Civil War. Next to the church is the Orduña’s family home which is now a museum. The Orduña family rose to prominence in Guadalest from the 1600s until the death of the last heir in 1934. For book lovers, the museum boasts a large historic library with approximately 589 books from the years 1500 to 1800. A look over the town’s walls affords panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, the glimmering blue reservoir below, and the Mediterranean on the vista.

 

18th Century Baroque Church: Our Lady of the Assumption

18th Century Baroque Church: Our Lady of the Assumption

There are eight other museums, which range from the quirky the Salt and Pepper Museum, the historic Ethnological Museum of the Valley of Guadalest, and the macabre Torture Museum. There are the usual souvenir shops, but also unique regional products and high quality items for the home or gifts. Cafés are available for a respite or quality local fare.

 

To get there, one can take the short trip by a tour bus or car. The drive is hilly and windy, but not treacherous, and is quite scenic, with one route passing another castled town, Polop. Bring good walking shoes, as the route up to the historic areas of Guadalest are steep and the round rock pathways can prove slippery. Near Guadalest, there are the waterfalls, Fonts de l’Algar, and numerous physical options such as hiking, biking and mountain climbing.