Thursday, August 2, 2018

Madrid, Spain (Part 3)

After spending two and a half days in Barcelona, we boarded a train (the "Bullet" which drove 200 miles/hour) to Madrid, Spain. It was a very pleasant ride-- smooth, fast and very comfortable. I was fairly glued to a book but glanced out the window every now and again to view the hills, trees, small towns and a few farms along the way.

Our main reason for going to Spain at all was to visit Chris's sister Sharon and her family (Duane, David, Amelia and Samantha) who moved to Madrid last August. So our tour of the country ended with a four day stay with them. The kids were off from school so we got to experience their summer break (which looked a lot like mine when I was a kid: playing with the siblings, reading, and chore lists). Sharon and Duane have a really great apartment, it's really spacious, enough bedrooms for them all, somewhat in the center of the city, close to the metro (underground public transportation) and their school. Please remember that my use of the term "spacious" is coming from the urban environment of which I also live in the US... every square foot counts!

On our first day in Madrid, Chris and I toured the city center and used our Rick Steves Audio Tour. He guided us passed the square, government buildings, famous statues, a park and shopping district. We made a pit stop at the Chocolateria because it pretty famous and Chris had heard about their fresh churros. But here, you dip your fresh churros in a cup of hot chocolate . . . thick, pudding-like hot chocolate. It was amazing and definitely a high light of the tour.

I want more.

The second day, we stole the nieces and nephew away from their parents (not really, we asked permission) and took them to the amusement park. We got there shortly after it opened and rode nearly all the larger rides before the lines got too long. It was hot and the water rides were a favorite, even for me. The best part though, was having the kids hang out with us and do something a little special with them. We all had fun together. Also, its a lot easier hanging out with older kids at places like that than littles . . . just saying I'm looking forward to that more now.

On Thursday, Chris woke up not feeling well. I suppose if he had to be sick for just one day, I'm glad it was that one and not the next day which was a travel day. He rested and Amelia took me on a walk to visit "Platform Zero" the metro museum. If I had brushed up on my Spanish before the trip, I would could have comprehended a lot more of the information but just seeing the metro in its original state was pretty cool. The white tile covering the tunnel was shiny, the floor to ceiling tile advertisements were especially interesting to me as was the embellishments used for boarders and accents. In the early 1920s, the metro was sharp looking. They really went all out! (One fact I thought was pretty amazing was that the advertisements were made of tile, not just painted over the present tiles... so when a company went out of business, they had to rip the tiles out and replace them with a new advertisement which was more than 8 feet tall! That would have been a job!) The metro system in Madrid (and Barcelona) was pretty amazing. It leaves something to be desired from our SF public transportation.

Thankfully Chris felt better in the late afternoon and we could join Sharon and Duane for dinner out in their neighborhood. Of course, we attempted to eat early (7:30) but found that no one starts serving food until after 8 p.m.! We wandered around a bit, went back home for 30 minutes and then tried again! We ended up at one of Duane's favorite places and he knows the owners well already. They were so kind and although I really couldn't understand the language I could tell that a relationship had formed which was really cool to see. Dinner was pretty amazing; we ordered several plates to share -- salad, breaded eggplant, steak and potatoes, breaded cod, chorizo cooked in cider, and dessert. Yum!

We left Friday morning for the airport. It was sad to realize our trip had come to an end. We had really enjoyed (almost) every moment! Sharon took us to the train station where we just barely made the train we needed! Once we got to the airport we ended up waiting in line for the ticket counter for over an hour . . . slowest moving line ever . . . seriously, there were only 12 people in front of us! Then ran to security, then ran to the shuttle that took us to our terminal then ran to our gate where I was pulled aside for more security screening and then ran to the end of the line to board the plane. Next time we will allow more than 2 hours to fly out of Spain!! The good news is that we were given Priority Seating so we had more space, better food, and better headphones to enjoy our flight. It was pretty cool.

Barcelona, Spain (Part 2)

Our adventures in Barcelona started out with a bit of a delay thanks to our delayed flight that put us in the city later than expected. We couldn't check into our AirBnB until the next day (the host wasn't available after 8 p.m.) so we stayed in a hotel near the airport. It ended up being a beautiful hotel with a soaking tub with jets and a really comfortable bed. It was a nice ending to a stressful travel day.

So, we didn't make it to the actual city of Barcelona until after noon the next day. We checked into our AirBnB and set off to find lunch. A friend had recommended a place called Brunch & Cake which was a little over a mile away. We walked there only to find that the wait would be an hour. Since we had skipped breakfast, that didn't seem like the wisest idea. Thankfully the host told us about another location/sister cafe they had just 6 blocks away. They saved a table for us and we walked some more. It was the best food ever. Think hipster breakfast/brunch food with fresh, organic, healthy food (seriously, their pancakes were sugar free...) But it was all amazing. We ate there three times. I thought the wait staff would start recognizing us! It was all so. good. I'm thinking about writing the owners to come to SF -- they would fit right in and do amazing here.

This is a chicken sandwich with a side of nachos (the thing sticking out of it is a syringe with hot sauce). It was delicious and we ate it all.

After lunch, we did a walking tour with our Rick Steves Audio Tour. He guided us passed the Cathedral of Barcelona (we just missed the last entry time to see the inside), the Gothic Quarter, the Ramblas (shopping strip) and a few other buildings that were of interest. We took a few wrong turns but enjoyed it for the most part. He gave a lot of history about the city which was hard to track. Barcelona has over 3,000 years of history! Keeping the leaders in order was difficult for me--I had regrets of not paying attention to more history in school several times on this trip.

After the tour, we walked over to the pier and watched the boats for a while. We also passed a statue of Christopher Columbus-- his journey had started in Barcelona . . . the things I never really paid attention to before.

We could already tell we loved this city - in just one day. As we walked around we noticed a number of playgrounds --like six in one mile-- that were really close to things that adults would want to do, like shop or eat. A lot of the play structures were right next to restaurants that had outdoor seating -- so a family could actually eat out with a high degree of success. A lot of areas were made for walking not driving. The metro was also amazing. The longest wait we ever had was 4 minutes. On our last night, we had to transfer three times and again, the wait between trains was almost nothing! Everything seemed so well planned and timed. I would say these things were also notable in Madrid. San Sebastian had a lot of playgrounds too but no metro (and no real need for it).

On the second day in Barcelona, we took the metro to the Sagrada Familia, a famous Basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi. He designed several buildings in the city all of them unique. This church however is still under construction . . . it started in 1883 but he died in 1926. Others have taken on the project and you can almost see the three different generations of construction. They have it scheduled to be finished in 10 more years. Since we didn't make it inside this building, we are hoping to go back someday after its finished.

**Clicking on the photographs will enlarge them**

The outside of the Sagrada is amazing. I have never seen anything like it. Statues and words cover nearly the whole front and rear of the building. The front side shows the nativity scene in such great imagery and the back shows the crucifixion in such detail it really hits your heart. So the gospel is just right there in the open for all to see. Its really amazing.

This is another building he designed. All the edges were smooth/rounded -- it really stands out against the buildings around it. He also used a lot of colors on the outside of the building (as well as the inside I assume). 

We stopped by the Barcelona Cathedral one more time to see if we could get in but the line wrapped around the entire church! Then we took the metro to the Arc de Triumph and rested a bit before walking through a really beautiful park.

After that we started making our way toward the Olympic village. We weren't sure what to find here . . . but since the 1992 Summer Olympics were such a big deal for the USA I had selfishly assumed there would be something amazing to see (USA Basketball Dream Team and Gymnastics both took home the Gold and you remember Kerri Strugg!) But there wasn't really anything to see. The area had been built up and there was a beach which had been constructed for the events which is enjoyed by so many people now. We stayed at the beach watching beach volleyball being played and then made our way over to a restaurant for dinner.

We had made a reservation for a place called Agua which was you may have guessed, right on the water. The views were great and after a short rain we watched the sunset and turn the sky a stunning cotton-candy pink and blue. The food was really good although we weren't exactly sure what Paella was supposed to taste like! I liked it but the dish we had wasn't totally amazing. The tapas we ordered were delicious though!

It had been a long day and a lot of walking. We made it home just after 11 p.m. and hit 20,000 steps.  The next day was our travel day. We ate breakfast at Brunch & Cake for the last time and took the metro to the train station. Madrid here we come!

San Sebastián, Spain (Part 1)

We arrived in San Sebastián without too much trouble, there may have been some confusion with our luggage and Chris having to run through the entire airport to ensure it made out connecting flight. But we weren't even the last ones on the plane and we made it, so in hindsight, it doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but at the time... super stressful. Maybe I'll write more in a separate post.

We made it to our AirBnB around 4 p.m. We dropped off our stuff and headed out to see this beach town we had heard so much about. We rented a bedroom that was really close to the beach and not too far from the "Old City" which is where all the food and stuff to see is. We walked around a bit and then sat in a really pretty park for a long time and just watched the people. Two things struck me right away: 1) There were a lot of young families here, clearly on vacation (also clearly didn't have a 12 hour flight to get there) and 2) everyone looked so relaxed. We also noticed that short-shorts were in style and jean overall skirts had made a comeback too. Regardless of what they wore or how many children they had in tow, everyone seemed really relaxed.

For dinner we headed over to the Old City and walked the narrow streets taking in all the variety of places to pick from. We had read that tapas were the thing to eat here along with cheap beer and wine. So, we loaded our plates with everything from deep fried cheese balls to ham sandwiches. At this first place we tried, it seemed like bar food -- mostly fried stuff. But each day we tried new places and found that there are really a wide variety of foods offered here. Some had steak or chicken kabobs, there were salmon fillets on bread with a yummy sauce and sardines and even octopus (we didn't try that one though). They did half pints of beer for 2 Euro and wines for between 3 and 4 Euro. It was hard to pass up!

The next morning after breakfast (It was delicious -- eggs, tomatoes, avocado on tortillas) we took a hike up to Mount Urgull, which has a huge statue of Jesus at the top of it. I couldn't quite understand the whole history of the mountain or the building at its peak, but I think it was a monastery or church at one point. English was not used on any of the signage for this site! It was so gorgeous. Yes, the statue of Jesus was awesome but the views were breathtaking. You could see so much of the coast and the water was the most amazing blue.

**If you click on the photos, they will enlarge to full screen. You can barely make out all the people covering the beach! It was packed.

On our way down the hill we stumbled onto a cafe and stopped for a drink. It was fun to just chill and take in the beauty . . . and cool down in the shade with a cold drink. It was hot! 

After lunch (pizza and a tuna/avocado salad above) we went to the beach. I enjoyed sitting in the sun watching all the activity on the beach and in the water. There were so many people in the water (not like San Francisco) it looked like it was one huge party. Everyone was laughing, jumping over waves, running into the water, etc. And on the sand, we watched little naked children making pools out of the sand. Parents seemed so chill and relaxed. Eventually we made our way into the water as well, it was colder than I would have thought but it felt amazing after sitting in the heat. It was clear but also full of little pieces of dirt/bark so it didn't really feel "clean." Different than I had imagined; still fun though and I laughed and smiled more than I remember doing in a long time.

We tried a meat-heavy place for tapas that night and it was better than the first night. Steak kabobs, meat balls, fish with bread. And we had learned the first night that places don't really start getting busy until close to 8 p.m. This time we were in the crowd!

The next morning we decided to go for a long walk around the beach. We had contemplated riding bikes to get to our destination but it was going to cost 16 Euro for a 10 minute ride... me, being the frugal one, thought we should just take the 30 minute walk and save our money for ice cream! In the end, my feet started hurting more than I had expected. But it was a beautiful walk and we got some great photos.

At our destination was an art installation called "Wind Cones." I have no idea what it's meaning was. The three metal structures looked to me like chain links. It was quite a common item to see printed on souvenirs. 

It was a beautiful scene with the green hills, blue water, waves crashing and breeze in your hair. And the other tourists . . . but we got a few photos that made it look like we were the only ones there!

After lunch we headed back to the beach. The clouds had come in and there was a chance of a storm passing in the afternoon but it didn't end up hitting us until the middle of the night. We had hoped to spend more time on the beach on our last day in this city but it rained through the night and through the rest of the next day. So this was our last time on the beach. It wasn't nearly as crowded or warm, but it was still entirely pleasant and enjoyable.

Dinner that night was more of the seafood faire. The counter was covered in tapas ranging from sardines to octopus but I stopped in the middle and had mostly salmon and crab. It was all really tasty. Ham sandwiches were also a common tapa -- they were everywhere!

So, we woke up in the middle of the night to what sounded like hail to me but was really just rain drops hitting the tin roof and metal pots outside our window. It rained all day, letting up only a few times. We ended up buying umbrellas because I failed to remember to pack them.

We had a big lunch at the most bizarrely decorated restaurant ever (and failed to take photos) before heading to the airport. The restaurant served a variety of foods - salads, wraps, burgers, hummus, drinks .  . . and was decorated with teal booths on wheels and metal fence/gates above each booth back, there were plants everywhere and dark wood floors. The kitchen was in the back down some stairs and the bathroom was on the third level which you had to take a catwalk to get to. Strange. But also delicious. 

And that ends our time in San Sebastián. If I decide to share the transportation horror stories I'll do so in a separate post. At this point, we have had the most wonderful time enjoying warm weather, a beach, lots of wandering (and meeting my step count goals), delicious food and each other. One day of rain and a few hours lost sleep is not worth complaining about.