Sunday, October 27, 2013

We Are Home

We made it home yesterday, landing at about 4pm and arriving around 5pm. 

The flight home was, fortunately, uneventful. Terrie and I stayed up almost the entire way to allow for quick equalizing with the time shift. Fortunately we had some comfy seats and many movies at our disposal. I know I watched four movies and I think Terrie did the same. 

Picture of my seat - it faces backwards. Terrie's was just through the drop-down window facing forward. 
Note: The screen in the side panel swings out towards the seat and the seat lays flat for sleeping. Very nice. 

The only downside (minor) was our seat selections - we selected seats which happened to be right next to the cooler (refrigeration unit) exhaust vents. They happen to spit out into the cabin right where we were sitting. I think B.A. (British Airways) actually stands for "Big Apologies" as they did everything they could to cool the cabin and even offered to move us if it became unbearable. I'm sure everyone else was freezing as it was very pleasant for me by the end of the flight. I also offered to move in case anyone became too cold. Overall the flight was pleasant and calm. Customs was a breeze as well with Global Entry (I happened to find the only broken kiosk computer though - thought this was amusing, being a computer geek).

Upon arriving home, the cats were meowing at the door and very happy to see us.  All yesterday evening they were stuck to us (mainly Terrie) like glue, running up and down the stairs to follow us. They especially loved it when we both awoke around 1am this morning as this was even more "play time" for them. 

Our welcoming

Note: No shots of Edna as she was being her skitty self while Dude was being his nebby (nosey) self. 

All-in-all it was a great trip and we had a fun time for the week off I had and the two weeks Terrie had; enjoying some beautiful sights, food, people and more. We both agree, though, we are glad to be home. Even if it is rainy, wet, and cold here in Seattle. :-)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Day 11 - Barcelona

Our final day in Spain.  We have had a fantastic vacation and we are ready to go home.  In fact, we are on layover at Heathrow Airport in the UK as I write and post our final Spain vacation blog.

What We Did Today:
We hopped on another train and went an hour or so outside Barcelona to Montserrat, meaning serrated mountain.  The monestary is nestled in the jagged peaks at 2,400 feet.  The first monks built huts at Montserrate around A.D. 900 and the monestary was founded in 1025.  The Choir School followed shortly thereafter and is considered the oldest music school in Europe.   The boys choir still perform concerts.  We were fortunate enough to hear them sing live while we were visting.  As with many monestaries and places people consider religiously sacred, Montserrat has had it's share of turmoil and destruction.  

We took the cable car (funicular) to the top

View from the funicular while ascending the mountain

The top attraction of Montserrat is La Morneta, the small wood statue of the Black Virgin, discovered in the Sacred Cave in the 12th century.  Legend states she was carved by St. Luke and brought to Spain by St. Peter, hidden away in the cave during the Moorish invasions and discovered by shepherd children.  Carbon dating puts her at 800 years old.  The original statue was lighter and she has darkened over the centuries from candle smoke, humidity and the natural aging process of her original varnish.  Pilgrims follow a long, ornate passageway inside the basillica for their moment to touch the virgin and be "alone" with her.  We followed the pilgrims in and had our moment with her.  Just before you get to her, is an arch-coverd stairwell filled with shimmering tiles of several female saints.  The space stood out from the rest because is sparkled with light where the rest of the basillica is dimly lit and filled with dark, ornate wood furniture and carvings.  She sits behind a protective case and her hand is accessible through a small hole just big enough to put your fingers on hers.  Sorry - no photos allowed.  

Outside the Basillica 

Inside the Basillica - La Morneta is in the window above the the back of the alter and if you look closely you can see the boy choir in their white robes.

Then we ventured up even higher via the Sant Joan Funicular, another 820 feet.  Looking down at the monestary.  

The view on the way back down from Sant Joan

We met people from all over while spending the day here.  We heard more English spoken, with American accents, here than we did our entire two weeks.  We met people from Philadelphia and Houston.  While waiting for the Sant Joan funiclular we had a lovely chat with two gentleman from Norway.  We learned the English, Scandanavians and Irish all vacation in Spain.  The main reasons being it is easy to get to with loads of flight options and it's much less expensive than other warm climate countries in Europe.  These two gentlemen were snowbirds from Norway.  One has a house with his wife outside of Barcelona.

Word of the Day
We saw this on a couple menues and finally asked.  "Farm crashed eggs" means fried egg.  We assumed it meant scrambled eggs just due to the word crashed.

Till next trip,

Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 10 - Back to Barcelona

We are back in Barcelona and a leisurely train ride across the northern part of the county.  Once we were checked in to the hotel and fed (seafood paella - not something we normally order, it was amazing and we didn't even mind that some of it was staring back at us before we ate it) ... we decided to enjoy the AC in our room for an hour.  It is wonderful to feel cool and sticky -free for a short spell.

Catalan Politics
On the cab ride to the hotel we went past La Ramblas (the popular street with shops) where school and university teachers were holding a strike protest.  Traffic was terrible.  The cab driver was telling us of the 800,000 boys in the schools around the city, 20 or so have voiced an opinion how they prefer Spanish in schools over the regional language of Catalan.  To give you some perspective, the Catalan people would like to gain sovereignty from the Spanish federal government and Madrid.  So they are fierce about maintaining their language and customs which were nearly lost through years of war.  Back to the strike....A government official apparently made a sweeping decision that Spanish would be the language used ... so the teachers were striking and protesting.  It appeared students and parents may have been part of the march as well.

What we did today
After our cool down, we were back at it.  We walked about 1.5 miles from the the hotel to go see La Padrera, also called Casa Mila by some.  It is an icon work of Modernisme, again designed from ground up by Antoni Gaudi (including the interior, right down to the door knobs which perfectly fit your hand).  It sits in the Eixample (eye-SHAM-pla).  This neighborhood was built in the mid-19th century when the population burst our from the (formerly) walled city of Barcelona.  People had a taste for what was modern including electricity, streetcars, and a free-flowing organic feel.  The area is a strict grid plan where the sidewalks are big and full of shops and the street corners are cropped to create an airy feel to each intersection.  

Built between 1906 and 1912, the building is like a giant sculpture you can live in.  Again, Gaudi derives much of his inspiration from nature.  The floor plans optimize light.  He uses a series of catenary brick and iron arches to support the structure so no inside or outside wall is load bearing.  The tenant can move the interior walls to suit their own desires for space.  

There were many chimney stacks on the roof, but not all are actually chimneys.  Some are stairwells, like the tiled one in the photo with Dean and I. The stairwells actually house the collected water supply for the building as well in the center columns.  Some are fireplace/heating vents and other are air vents for the building.

Gaudi paid attention to every detail including the placement of windows and how light and air moved through the apartments to the plaster ornamentation around the door and window frames.

Inside courtyard

View of Eixample from rooftop

Tomorrow off to Montserrat.

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Family Jokes - Tutti Frutti

Hey Evan, they have a store for you here in Barcelona. ;-)

Found this in the third level of the subway at Placa d'Espanya, Barcelona, Spain.

I probably just have everyone the "Beach Boys - Kokomo" ear worm. :-)

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Location:Placa d'Espanya, Barcelona, Spain

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Day 9 - Spain

This is our last day in San Sebastián. It is gorgeous weather again today and we move at a leisurely pace. We stopped at our usual spot for breakfast and let them know it would be our last day. Handshakes and well wishes were exchanged.

We meandered about the city checking out some corners of Old Town we had not yet explored and views of the beach we had not yet seen. We headed back to the hotel to start the packing process and enjoyed an afternoon siesta. Not much to report on this lazy vacation day.

We made our way out for dinner, going to our favorite La Viña. We had to enjoy the cheesecake experience one last time before departing. Our day starts very early on Thursday with a 7:30 am train to Barcelona.

We have a few more things to squeeze in so stay tuned.

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Location:San Sebastián, Spain

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Day 8 - France

We were up a bit earlier today and went back to France. It was quite windy here today with some gusts making it hard to walk. Rain threatened the better part of the day yet; thankfully, never came. The weather has been good to us the entire trip and it looks to continue through at least Saturday. Despite the humidity in San Sebastián, it hasn't rained at all during the day and as far as we can tell it only rained one night.

How many trains to and from France on this day, you ask?
Only 4 trains. The minimum required, though it was longer than a 45 minute trip one-way. The wait for the train going from Hendeya to St-Jean-de-Luz was an hour. The Spanish trains leave right on time ... you're either on or off, and then it's gone. There is no time to ponder your situation or surroundings.

We finally had some good shopping and I got some much needed retail therapy. I must admit I am both amazed and dissapointed, there are no local artisan shops or areas in either city we've visited. San Sebastián is full of fashion and the few items which appear local are surely mass produced in China. Sound familiar? Even Barcelona was full of the same kinds of stuff everywhere I went, mostly clothes, shoes, leather goods and tourist trinkets. The one exception we found is they do make gorgeous table and bath linens in the local Basque region.

A sales lady in St-Jean-de-Luz said we wouldn't really find hand made items/local artisans around Basque Country, except maybe old town San Sebastián (which is right where we're staying and there are none). She highly recommended Portugal and said the local food and artisans are incredible in the towns on the outskirts of Lisbon. We also had an animated conversation with her about Orlando, Fl. She was so excited to have taken her daughter and cannot wait to go back. Her face lit up and she exclaimed "it was like magic!" She also talked about how she can relate to the patriotism and passion Americans have for their country because the Basque feel the same way and will fight to keep their traditions, language and culture alive.

Looking down Rue Gambetta from Place Louis XIV (main square in town)

Macaroons - oh my! This cookie just grabs you and it's impossible to focus on anything else when eating one...yes it's that good. The French Basque are apparently famous for their macaroons and now we completely understand. We kept saying "yummm", and "um-hmmmmm" the whole time we ate one cookie. Wish I had bought some to take home yet something tells me there was no chance they'd actually make it out of the country let alone all the way home.

The macaroons are the smaller wafers on top and left.

Trees inside Place Louis XIV (main square in town). These are Plane Trees, which are cut back in winter so in summer they'll come back with thick, shady foliage.

Back in San Sebastián we dropped off our few purchases at the hotel and headed to dinner at our favorite spot, La Viña. We arrived at the start of the dinner rush so there was no waiting for space at the bar. We had a few pintxos (Peen-chohs) which are very small plates of food, allowing you to taste several items to make a meal. Of course we finished our meal with their scrumptious cheesecake.

This happy, friendly man has waited on us every night we've been here. He hustles, moving non-stop for hours so we haven't had a chance to learn his name. Maybe tomorrow on our last night in town. La Viña is a busy, busy place during the lunch and dinner rush.

La Viña's award winning pinxto (fresh cream cheese and anchovy, wrapped in a toasted shell) Sooooo good!! Again, these are not the salty, fishy anchovies we get in the states.

A meatball with tomato/pepper sauce and a few potatoe fries. The other plate are jamón croquettes. Bite size comfort food filled with ham and creamy potatoes, then deep fried.

Our walk to the hotel from dinner included a short detour. This view is looking down from a bridge onto the street where our hotel is.

Same street, looking towards end of street which opens onto Concha Bay

Trains - The train system here in Spain is truly remarkable. Americans should be so lucky to have mass transit on this scale. Maybe some cities operate like this, certainly not Seattle. I noticed lots of elderly riding the trains, whether to go shopping, visiting, or out for an evening meal. The system is so easy to use with frequently running trains. I especially love how it seems to keep the elderly mobile and perhaps less reliant on assistance until much later in their lives.

To Go Cups - We noticed some of the coffee shops here have to-go cups for coffees or espressos, though we've only seen one person in San Sebastián choose that option. Most folks actually stop and stand at the bar to enjoy their coffee and whatever they're eating off of real dinnerware. I noticed one lady come in for two large cups of coffee. She left with the full cups of coffee and saucers, to be returned later. We often saw people leave with dishes and cups from restaurants and cafés only to return them later. It's worth noting Barcelona is full of Starbuck's coffee stores so we saw to-go cups were more common in that city.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Day 7 - Off to France

A Tale of Seven Trains

You can probably tell from the lead in where today's story is going, so let's take the journey to St-Jean-de-Luz, France.

We were off to a very late start. The late nights are catching up with us and Dean actually slept until 10 am which puts us on our way around noon maybe a little later. We stopped at our usual AM spot for a very light breakfast and fresh squeezed OJ. We watched a whole orange go into a juicing machine and end up as liquid in a glass. They keep the oranges cold so the OJ is a nice cool temperature when it hits the class. Deelish!

Here's what we think we know when we start our trip to France: We can get to St-Jean-de-Luz in about 45 minutes on 2 trains. One train from San Sebastián to the French border at Hendaye and the second from the French border to our destination.

Train 1
Gets us from San Sebastián to Irun ... just shy of the border. So we wait for the next train that goes all they way to France (7-10 more minutes). This could happen to anyone; only 1 of every 4 trains stopping in Irun goes all the way to the border. So we wait 10 minutes for the next train.

Train 2
Gets us from Irun to Hendeye, France. There is no border control. We walked out of the Spanish train station and went 300 yards or so into the French train station. The Spanish train system is much, much easier to use than the French system. It's a quick 2 minutes at a kiosk in Spain to get your ticket and the trains run every 10-15 minutes ... in France there is a long line to get a ticket because the automated kiosks don't take cash and or non-european issued credit cards. The tickets are significantly more expensive in France relative to distance travelled and we had a 30-45 minute wait. There is no border control between Spain and France and I admit I was disappointed to not be getting a French stamp in my passport.

Train 3
Gets us from Hendeya to St-Jean-De-Luz only we missed our stop partially because the announcement in French was spoken so quickly we had no idea what was said. We were on a long train and as we rolled out of the station we saw the sign.

Train 4
So, we get off at the next stop to wait 30 minutes for a train to take us 10 minutes back the direction we just came. Finally we arrive at our destination around 4 pm. Keep in mind we got on the first train in San Sebastián at about 1:30 pm.

FINALLY!! It is a charming little beach town and a favorite of the French. We hear it is jam-packed during July & August. It's easy to see the appeal. It has a gorgeous beach, a fun shopping district with loads of fun stores, and you can walk just about everywhere. So it's now after 5 pm, we're starving, our train goes back to the border at 7 pm and the restaurants are all closed until 6:30 pm. The stores started to pack up for the night around 6 pm, so we barely had a chance to stroll through, eat a quick sandwich and head back to the train.

Below is Eglise St. Jean-Baptiste. St-Jean-de-Luz was essentially put on the map when Louis XIV married Marie-Therese in 1660. It led to a reconciliation between Europe's two most powerful counties. King Philip IV of Spain gave his daughter in marriage to the king of France, uniting Europe's two largest palaces and helped end a hundred years of hostility between the two countries. The church is roughly half-way between Madrid and Paris.

The houses are all white with mostly green or red shudders. There is the occasional house with blue shudders.

We did manage to find a chocolate shop and other sweet morsels. One of the shopkeepers asked me, in French, if I wanted to have a taste (this was accompanied by a hand gesture offering me a choice from the platter). I obliged and she asked me in a thick French accent if I spoke English ... I respond "Si" ... remember I've been saying "si" for "yes" for over a week now I'm Spain, so the word is now part of my English vocabulary. She looks at me strangely and asked me in Spanish if I speak that language and I respond "no" ... Well you know that look a dog gets when they hear a weird noise and torque their head sideways? That's how the shopkeeper looked at me. I completely confused the woman despite the fact I correctly answered her first question; I just used the wrong language.

Back to the Tale of Seven Trains...

Train 5
This train is on time and begins our trek back to Spain from St-Jean-de-Luz. This leg was a non-event.

Train 6
Rolls in almost immediately at the border in Hendeya to take us back to Spain. The train is busy this time of evening. We're guessing folks are going out and about for dinner. We get off the train in the right city ... one stop too soon. Big sigh. San Sebastián is so much bigger than we thought.

Train 7
This train takes us the one last hop between the two ends of town and brings us back to where our journey began over 8 hours prior. We are weary, hungry travelers in search of a restaurant on our walk to the hotel.

We decided to go back to St-Jean-de-Luz tomorrow so we could take advantage of the shops, see a bit more of the city and challenge ourselves to do it in 4 trains rather than 7. Stay tuned.

The End!

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Day 6 - Spain

We were off to an early start today. Up at 6 am-ish to catch the 7:50 train to Bilbao. The town is almost completely dark at 7:15 am on a Sunday. Only one coffee shop was open between our walk from the hotel to the train station. It's actually become our breakfast spot and they also recognize us now.

Unexpected Connection with a Local
The train ride to Bilbao is about 2 hours and 30 minutes. It's a commuter train so it doesn't go too fast and has frequent stops. We sat across the aisle from this little old lady (to qualify old, she was easily well into her 80's). Somewhere along the ride another woman got on and sat in the seat opposite the old lady. This second woman did not look well, was sweating profusely and panting. I initially thought she had just run like mad to catch the train. We handed her a few napkins so she could wipe her face and she muttered something in Spanish that I somehow knew didn't equate to a thank you. It didn't take too long to assess there was something way off about her behavior. Several minutes went by and the second lady got up, wandered down the train and sat down next to someone else, then got up again a few minutes later. The whole time Dean, the old lady and me are peering down the aisle like busy bodies watching her every move. It was at this point the old lady looked at Dean, pointed to the other woman, and made the sign of someone crazy. the second woman wandered by down the aisle past us and spent the rest of her trip in the bathroom smoking. No, smoking on the train is not allowed. Our little old lady friend got up and knocked on the door to tell the woman to stop smoking. We loved that about her, despite the fact it didn't work. We chatted a bit with the old lady during this train ride, Dean used his phone and she used sign language. She totally made us smile.

We expected to see more single family homes as we got out of San Sebastián. This was not the case. What we did see was tons of apartment buildings all very close to the train line. It makes sense since the regional train system is how many Spaniards get around. This part of the Basque Region is lush and green.

Once in Bilbao, it's easy to see the city making a shift from industrial town to something more modern as well as a tourist destination. The Guggenheim Museum also draws people from all over. There is a handy tram just outside the train station to take you through the city. It follows and almost hugs the curvy Nervion River. The Guggenhiem stands out from every other structure in the city despite the few tall, modern glass buildings.

Front (entrance is down the stairs)

Inside lobby looking up

Back of building on the river

There are 3 floors of exhibits inside the museum. Only two were open this day and we think it is why admission was free. The building was designed by Frank Gehry. There are not many straight lines inside or outside the building. The museum has two permanent collections, the first being The Matter Of Time by Richard Sera. They are immense metal structures, almost like human mazes. Once you are inside interacting with the art itself, space, sound, motion and time are all distorted and in my case, dizzying.

Models of the large metal structures

Me needing to hold on after slowing making my out. I had to look up on my way out in order to create a false horizon with the top of the structure and the ceiling.

The other permanent collection is by Antoni Tàpies, an artist from the Catalan region. Despite the explanation on the wall, the explanation provided via audio guide, the explanation in our Spain tourist book, and the Guggenheim visitor guide ... the essence of what we were looking at was completely lost on us. It was so completely void of any tangible meaning. Enough said. Google him if you're curious to see what we saw.

The building, we got ... The facade is limestone and titanium and connects the city with its river, and sort of shimmers like a silvery fish in the water. You can see the overlapping of fish scales all throughout the architecture, even the glass enclosed elevator. The outside space if phenomenal. In front is a 42-foot West Highland Terrier made of 60,000 plants and flowers. It was originally intended to be temporary; however, the people of Bilbao fell in love with it and bought it. It is lovingly referred to as "Puppy."

Looking across the river from back of building

Back to the train, and guess who gets on? Yep, the same sweet old lady. She greeted us when she got on but didn't sit next to us this time. Her destination came before ours and on her way out she stopped to give us a little bag of local hard candies. She tapped her heart with her hand and warmly smiled. We didn't understand what she said yet it felt as if she was saying it was nice to have met us.

Word & Observation of the Day - Combo
The Spanish are not averse to ice like other Europeans. In fact you can get ice just about anywhere. The word is "hielo"; pronounced almost like "yellow." Even when my tea is too hot, they offer me hielo. Love them!!

Tomorrow - off to France!

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Location:Calle del Puerto,San Sebastian,Spain