About John Cooney

John Cooney and his wife Robyn have enjoyed more than their fair share of travel. They hesitate to call themselves ‘experts’ – but they’ve grabbed every chance that’s come their way to explore new countries, cultures and customs. They’ve had the privilege (both on their own and as the leaders of numerous successful group-tours) to sample many stunning destinations: Europe, the UK, Singapore, Vanuatu, the USA, Israel, Egypt, Africa, Dubai, China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And their recent (and most pleasant) memories are of the places ancient-and-modern that border the Mediterranean. John and Robyn are at-home in airports, hotels, cruise ships, and the like … and they know how to make the most of a unique travel opportunity. Travel, they reckon, is an all-five-senses experience – a chance to see, feel, smell, hear and taste the world. And they’ve done it often enough to know for sure: sightseeing with a group of laid-back Kiwis is DOUBLE the fun – lots of laughs, great company, and memories that last forever!

SALAMANCA & SEGOVIA

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May 2019

On the last Thursday in May you might’ve found us practising our Portuguese: “Adeus amigos!” (goodbye) … and then our Spanish: Hola España!” … as we re-crossed the border and took aim on another different-yet-again region, this time in northwest Spain.

Castilla y León is a high plateau ringed by mountains and known for its fabled medieval cities – like Salamanca, with its 12th-century university, its Roman bridge and its baroque Plaza Mayor, awash with golden sandstone … and Segovia, watched over, first, by its ancient Roman aqueduct (boasting more than 160 soaring, interlocking arches, still-standing after 2000 years, go figure!) … and, second, by its multi-turreted ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Alcázar (castle).

As we’ve been finding all over the Iberian Peninsula, food here is an obsession, with the region promising the country’s best jamón (cured ham), roast lamb and suckling pig. That’s right folks, a whole piglet, roasted to perfection and served up on your plate! (We didn’t try it, but we saw it! And you heard about it here!)

We covered a lot of kms on foot in both Salamanca and Segovia – beating the cobbled streets, puffing forever up hills, eyeballing the marvellous architecture, spotting storks and their babies nesting on the highest points in town, getting stiff-necked inside at least a 100 more cathedrals, then rewarding ourselves the way laid-back Portuguese and Spaniards have been doing for centuries. In the lovely, balmy late afternoons and evenings, we Kiwis joined the crowds in pavement cafés or around tables in town squares … ordering a creamy cappuccino or a glass of sparkling vino or a selection of tasty tapas … soaking up the ambience and watching the world go by!

Ahh, yes! This, more than anything else, is what travel’s all about …

COMING UP: “No city on earth is more alive than Madrid,” claims Lonely Planet, “a beguiling place whose sheer energy carries a simple message: this city really knows how to live!” Come with us to our final stopover, and we’ll see if that’s the truth …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our internationally-feared Quacky Yellow Ducks are still being claimed by Kiwis who do silly, embarrassing, award-worthy things ……

  • Brian scored our ‘Caught With His Pants Up Award’ – for being seen coming out of the ladies loo en route to Segovia. Ask me and I’ll show you the photo of Brian standing next to a sign on the toilet door that couldn’t have been more obvious: a large-bosomed lady in a large red dress!
  • Kaye sneaked away with her second duck and our ‘Quack Up In The Church Award’ – for accidentally sitting on her first duck in the middle of our guide’s quiet talk about church history, causing her poor duck to shatter the unearthly silence of Segovia Cathedral with an outburst of loud quacking.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (If the speech bubble isn’t there, click on ‘home’.) Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

PORTO, DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

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May 2019

On a lazy Monday morning in Portugal, we headed north to Porto, the country’s second-largest city (although its citizens claim it is second-to-none). We’d been warned that this old town with its golden rooftops is preferred for long seafood dinners, slow strolls through sleepy streets, plus white-port-and-tonic as the sun sets across the Douro River. And we promptly fell in love with the place: unpacking in the perfectly-located, beautifully restored Pestana Vintage Porto Hotel – then sitting down in a local eatery for another Portuguese feast.

Mmmm – obrigado! (Thank you!)

Tuesday began with a two-hour guided meander through Porto – from the Praca de Liberade (Liberty Square) in the city-centre to the alluring Ribeira District, where colourful old houses overlook colourful old fishing boats, crumbling alleyways, the fabulous Sao Francisco Gothic church, port-wine houses and photogenic bridges. Come the afternoon, we found ourselves at a famous winery, Porto Calem, for a tour of the cellars plus a tasting of the famous local port (tawny and other tasty blends).

We enjoyed a break from busy sightseeing on Wednesday, taking instead to Portugal’s famous waterway for a full-day cruise along the Douro River Valley. They’ve been making wine here for 2000 years in what is now the UNESCO-recognised Alto Douro Region … and, I tell ya, sailing slowly past terraces, farmlets, bridges, dams and a scenic landscape that’s been shaped by human endeavour over the centuries was ooh-la-la lovely!

COMING UP: We wave a sad goodbye to Portugal, and cross the border back into España – disembarking for an on-foot romp around Salamanca, the country’s youngest oldest city. The show ain’t over yet folks, so stick with us …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (If the speech bubble isn’t there, click on ‘home’.) Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

SINTRA, THE SILVER COAST, & COIMBRA

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May 2019

If you happened to be driving around Southern Portugal on Sunday May 26th you might have seen us, motoring happily along the highway through pine-covered hills (a stark contrast to the flat-as-a-pancake plains of Spain). We parked up for a while in picturesque, fairytale Sintra – an attractive UNESCO site known for its bustling town-centre, its pastel-hued manors, and its wacky, dreamy, multi-coloured Pena Palace – restored in the 1800s by good King Ferdinand II from the ruins of an old monastery.

Next stop for us was at Praia da Claridade, along Portugal’s Silver Coast: “an unbroken stretch of pristine shoreline,” according to one website, “white sandy beaches, and pounding Atlantic seas.” I’ve seen video-clips of terrifyingly huge waves (up to 30 metres high at famous surfing spots like Nazaré, a little further north) – but the ‘pounding seas’ were calm, flat and boring the night we stayed there.

 

Our third stop (next morning) was at Coimbra: a riverfront city in central Portugal, home to a well-looked-after medieval old town plus an elegant, historic university – oozing with charm and crawling with bright-eyed students.

COMING UP: We continue north to Porto, Portugal’s second city (although its citizens claim it is second-to-none). Don’t go away, because we’re about to fall in love with this old town, its golden rooftops, long seafood dinners, slow strolls along cobbled streets, and generous glasses of the local favourite – port wine – as the sun sets across the Douro River.

PEOPLE-NEWS: Two more lucky duckies have left home, quack-quack-quacking their yellow heads off…

  • JENNY scored big-time with our ‘All I Want For Xmas Is My One Front Tooth Award’ – when a fairly prominent front incisor fell out! Jenny was distraught, but I was able to comfort her: “Don’t be embarrassed about the big black hole in your face …” Congratulations, Jenny, for your cover-up efforts with chewing-gum!
  • JEANETTE ran off with her second duck and our ‘Dead To The World Award’ – for oversleeping the other day, waking five minutes before departure, rushing around like a blue-bottomed fly, and making it with seconds to spare for our morning walking tour. Phew!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (If the speech bubble isn’t there, click on ‘home’.) Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

LISBON: PORTUGAL, HERE WE COME!

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Friday May 31, 2019

I abandoned you several days ago in Seville (sorry about that), and so much has happened since I don’t know where to start. What I can tell you is that, on Thursday, we took aim on Portugal’s Atlantic Coast and Europe’s westernmost, sunniest capital: Lisbon. En route, we enjoyed colourful landscapes and rustic farmscapes … slept on and off (and some of us snored) … stopped at the Basilippo Olive Mill and learnt more about olive oil than you’ll ever know … and took time out for a leisurely lunch-stop in Evora (one of Portugal’s most enchanting medieval towns, preserved behind 14th century walls).

While in Evora, we visited one of the weirdest churches any of us have ever seen. The ‘Chapel of Bones’ was built in the 16th century with bones from the graves in the town. Why, you ask? Well, as an encouragement to visitors to think upon the transitory human condition. In the words above the entrance: “We bones that are here, we are waiting for yours.” Mmm, sobering, eh?

Lisbon is known as Queen of the Seas, thanks to its history as the sail-away port for superstar Portuguese explorers like Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco de Gama, off to find the New World. However, the city was almost somewhere else: in 1775 officials considered moving it, after the strongest, most devastating earthquake ever to strike modern Europe.

Fortunately, Lisbon stayed where it was. Which meant we could stay, too, and soak up its panorama of ancient ruins, white-domed cathedrals, magnificent bridges and cobbled alleyways!

We started at the 16th century Jeronimos Monastery, with its honey-stone cloisters, arches and turrets. The monastery was once populated by monks of the Order of St Jerome, whose spiritual job was to comfort sailors and pray for the King’s soul. (Not bad work if you could get it!)

At some stage that morning, we sat in a café sampling a local custard-filled treat: ‘Pasteis de Belem’. Then next on our to-do list was the impressive Torre de Belem (Belem Tower). Its distinctive battlements jut out onto the Rio Tejo and used to serve as a beacon for navigators returning from the far-off Indies. And just along the waterfront is Lisbon’s iconic Monument to the Discoveries, built in honour of Portuguese seafarers who, during the heady Empire-era, were some of the first Westerners to sail the globe.

Over dinner that first night we were entertained with a traditional Portuguese favourite: live Fado music – melodic, melancholic, and very pleasant.

It’s impossible to see everything there is to see in a city like Lisbon, but on Saturday we wandered with locals in the Marques de Pombal Square … e walked (staggered?) up the steep hills of Lisbon’s oldest district: the Alfama … and we eyeballed the hard-to-miss Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of St George), bits of which date from the 6th century, with other bits added later by the Visigoths and the Moors.

Ah yes! At a Midlife Madness rooftop cocktail party that evening, we toasted Lisbon’s health. If you get the chance to visit this place – DO IT!

COMING UP: Our adventure continues in Sintra – a picturesque town set amongst pine-covered hills, and famous for its wacky, dreamy, multi-coloured Pena Palace. Stay tuned!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (If the speech bubble isn’t there, click on ‘home’.) Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

SEVILLE: PALACES, FORTRESSES & BELL-TOWERS

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Saturday May 25, 2019

When Lonely Planet ranked the 10 cities that everyone will be dying to visit this coming year, guess which city occupied the coveted No.1 spot? That’s right – No.1 was Seville (pronounced ‘seveeya’ by the locals), regional capital of Southern Spain, situated on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, and abundant in flamenco dancing, Gothic architecture and mouth-watering churros.

After checking in to the fabulous Hotel Inglaterra, we went walkabout in the town-centre, ogling a crazy piece of architecture, shaped like a massive mushroom/waffle and ranked as the world’s largest timber-framed structure. We rode a lift up to the top of the sculpture for some panoramic views of Seville, then rearranged the seating at a ground-level cafe.

We began our Tuesday exploration of this lovely city at the Real Alcazar (Royal Palace), a Christianized Moorish fortress, where Spain’s monarchy often kicked-back on holiday. We checked out the dazzling dome of the Ambassadors’ Hall, the cool gardens and patios, and the State Rooms of Charles V.

We focused next on the Seville’s Gothic Cathedral (with its incredible gold-leaf altarpiece, Capilla Mayor) – the second largest cathedral in Europe after St Peter’s in Rome, built, as often happened back then, on the site of a 12th century mosque. La Giralda, the bell tower, still looks like a minaret, and we joined the youthful hordes all clambering to the top for some panoramic views.

Wednesday morning, for something a little different, we followed our guide around a local morning market – enjoying displays en route of delicious olives, fruits, cheeses, plus traditional jamon de bellota, the finest ham in the world (according to Seville-ites). It comes from free-range pigs that roam oak forests (called dehesas) along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during their last months of life. The exercise and diet of these black Iberian porkers has a significant impact on the flavour of the ham – which is cured for 36 months.

With that knowledge under our belts, we then lined up at a cooking class – where we learned how to make a cold, creamy tomato soup, a chickpea & spinach combo, and a delicious chicken paella – tucking in for lunch, accompanied (of course) by wine.

In the afternoon, desperate for more walking, we were led by our beloved Sandra along the riverbank to the Plaza de Espana – the most famous square in Seville – where, after a wander and meander, we did what you do in Spain: drank more wine.

COMING UP: A nice, long drive takes us from Seville to Lisbon on Portugal’s Atlantic Coast – with stops along the way at the fascinating Basilippo Olive Mill … and later, for a yummy lunch, in medieval Evora. The party’s moved to Portugal, folks – but don’t go away!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (If the speech bubble isn’t there, click on ‘home’.) Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.