Lisboa, You’ve Intrigued Me!

Waving a heartfelt “see you again soon” to Sevilla, we let public transport whisk us away towards Lisbon.  These bus and train rides provided much needed time for napping and reflecting.

A layover in southern Portugal, near the Algarve coast provided ample time to sit at this small train station.  I enjoyed watching this group of friends, who apparently just come to the train station to sit and chat and watch people coming and going - made me nostalgic for my beloved Nemaha.
A layover in southern Portugal, near the Algarve coast provided ample time to sit at this small train station. I enjoyed watching this group of friends, who apparently just come to the train station to sit and chat and watch people coming and going – made me nostalgic for my beloved Nemaha.

While it was a longer travel day than we probably needed/wanted, time passed quickly and before long the little arrow on my google map had us approaching a very long bridge that would shuttle us into downtown Lisbon.  Later I learned that this bridge, the Vasco de Gama bridge, is the longest in Europe.  Fun (to me) Fact!

In hindsight, adding Lisbon to our itinerary was probably a bit of overkill.  Back when the ladyfolk of this foursome were planning out our week of double-date-travels, it seemed like a fun idea to fly into Madrid and out of Lisbon, and completely do-able.   While it was in fact, do-able, it led to a more rushed visit to southern Spain than we’d have all liked.  But, as a result of our over-eagerness in the planning stage, we also got to go to Lisbon!!!

One of my favorite shots from Lisboa
One of my favorite shots from Lisboa

I was looking forward to it!  I’ve been hearing and reading so much about Lisbon recently in the blogospheres of the internets and have seen this historic city mentioned many times in “up-and-coming-destination” lists.  I waste a lot of time reading travel articles and lists and recommendations and I’m always a sucker for references to fun and funky hotels around the world.  It seems as of late I’ve seen several such hotels & guesthouses in Lisbon and Portugal in general. We ended up deciding to splurge on our final nights in Europe and stayed in one such funky hotel:  Evolution! (very much reminded of us of a stay we enjoyed in NYC in a similar futuristic/spaceship themed hotel:  Yotel.)

The lobby of Hotel Evolution
The lobby of Hotel Evolution

Settling into our smart room (too smart for me, I couldn’t find the volume for the entire time we were there)  provided the perfect segway into the quirky scene that is Lisbon.  The fact that Portugal remains the EUs weakest economy is evident and people have been hit hard here by the economic crisis.  That gives Lisbon a slightly rough-around-the-edges look, a look I love!  Heading into the old town the twisting cobblestone streets leading down to the riverfront provided many reminders of the seafaring powerhouse this city once was.

down on the banks of the Tejo (Tagus) River, the old customs house and other buildings were a reminder of the importance this city had in ruling the seas.
down on the banks of the Tejo (Tagus) River, the old customs house and other buildings were a reminder of the importance this city had in ruling the seas.

Had to borrow this photo from Tom Boyd as I didn't have one similar.  Renee and I down on along the river.

Had to borrow this photo from Tom Boyd as I didn’t have one similar. Renee and I down on along the river.

We also had a chance to redeem ourselves from our terrible 1.5 meals in Porto earlier in the month – and we scored big!  Portugal is known for its phenominal cod and we both agreed the giant portion we were served for dinner came in well beyond our expecations.  We also checked out a trendy, upscale food court and I had the best pork belly I’ve had in my life!  Even a random stop for a small plate of chicken we shared while waiting for one of our travel mates turned out delightful…and it just came from a doner kebab place we happened to pass.  Renee and I were both a bit sheepish to say what was on both our minds, to say something as silly as it being the best chicken ever, but once the cat was out of the bag we both enthusiastically agreed that it was in fact, just maybe, the best chicken EVER!  Whoa.  Mind blown.

Pork Belly of the Gods
Pork Belly of the Gods

Lisbon's famed Bacalao (cod)- melt in your mouth!

Lisbon’s famed Bacalao (cod)- melt in your mouth!

The hip and trendy Mercado da Ribeira

The hip and trendy Mercado da Ribeira

We missed a lot of Lisbon.  While we did get to stroll through the Mouraria area, we missed its cousin, Alfama.  We didn’t get to the parks or to see much of the waterfront or the Belem area or many of the cool museums I read about.  Partially due to lack of time but also because I spent way too much time on the phone with the delightful folks at Iberia Customer Service once we discovered that Iberia had rebooked us and apparently thought we were magical time travelers because they’d given us seats on two flights with a negative connection time!  Then they decided we were fine staying in Lisbon for 3 extra days, which was unacceptable given we’d miss connecting flights in Mexico and Luis needed to be in Boulder for work on Monday, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  So anyway, precious time I should have been out tasting Portugal’s seafood was instead wasted on the telephone – at least we had a cool hotel to hole up in.

The eclectic look of the Mouraria neighborhood.
The eclectic look of the Mouraria neighborhood.

Street graffito in Mouraria neighborhood.

Street graffito in Mouraria neighborhood.

Long story (sorta) short – I heart Lisbon and I’m really, really interested in returning.  I loved our sneak peak of Porto too…perhaps Portugal deserves her own Spring In Portugal tour!?!?!??!  Next year.

 

Southern Spain Sampler Platter: Part 2

Enjoying a moment of quiet inside the Alhambra grounds.

Granada, and the Alhambra, are on every “what not to miss in Spain” list.  Some might even say if you only go to one place in Spain, this should be it.  While I’m not sure I’d agree with that statement, it was on our itinerary and I was very much looking to the visit!

Upon arrival we dropped our bags off and immediately headed up into the Albaicin neighborhood for a lovely view across the way of the Alhambra and to watch the sunset over the city.  This is a neighborhood that has a lot worth exploring, but unfortunately we didn’t have much time and were antsy to find some dinner in the city down below.  In fact, Granada has a lot more to explore than just the Alhambra, but for our first-timers visit we could only focus on this famed palace/fortress.

Sunset over Granada with the Alhambra across the way.
Sunset over Granada with the Alhambra across the way.

 

Tom, Renee and I making our way down from Albaicin into the city.
Tom, Renee and I making our way down from Albaicin into the city.

We had a near moment of panic in the morning when we got to the line to enter the Alhambra grounds and learned that all tickets were sold out…and sold out for several months. (what???)  It took a little digging and asking around to figure it all out.  What was sold out was a pass to view the inner most palace, the Nasrid Palace, but we were able to get tickets to view the rest of the monuments, gardens and areas of the fortress.  It was a big disappointment to not be able to see the Nasrid Palaces as I’ve seen in some pictures what we missed out on – but we were thankful to at least have the day to view the rest.  Such details!  Amazing water features!  Beautiful gardens and terraces! Stunning Islamic architecture.  What more can I say? It was an incredible privilege to have had the chance to see what we saw:

Enjoying the views
Enjoying the views
The details!!
The details!!
My favorite area was where the royal family had their residences and gardens.
My favorite area was where the royal family had their residences and gardens.

It almost seemed an insult to Granada to leave after less than 24 hours, but I had to keep reminding myself that this was just an introduction and we’d make every effort to get back here for more time one day.  And besides, we had a night in Sevilla to look forward to!

A few hours in the car and we were pulling into Sevilla, the intensely Andaluz city.  Our trip allowed for an evening in this beautiful town, so we had to leave all of the important stops, like the Alcazar, for another time and just enjoy our evening finding a good place for dinner and drinks…and randomly, the most luxurious spa experience of my life.  We surprisingly saw a lot in our short walk from the hotel to find paella & wine (score!!!)….we passed one of the city’s largest Gothic cathedral and through many of the narrow streets that give this city its charm.

The old city on a fairly quiet Tuesday night.
The old city on a fairly quiet Tuesday night.
narrow streets so alluring it was nearly impossible NOT to walk down.
narrow streets so alluring it was nearly impossible NOT to walk down.
One last Spanish tapa and glass of delicious vino!
One last Spanish tapa and glass of delicious vino!

 

We had passed a very alluring spa on our walk to dinner that advertised luxury Arab baths.  On a whim, Renee and I grabbed the brochure and while we were at dinner decided to look it up online.  I was so sure it was going to be crazy expensive or fully booked until who knows when – after all it was already 8pm and we only had the rest of the night in town.  But, I was wrong.  The price was right and they had spots available for their 10pm-midnight spa package.  I didn’t even know people went to the spa at 10pm.  Given that all the signs were screaming “YES”….we listened and while the gentlemen headed off to find some live flamenco music, Renee and I headed for the spa.  I don’t really do spas/massages/etc all that often so I’m no connoisseur, but damn if this wasn’t luxury at its finest!  I’ve heard of spas in the Middle East that are probably way more luxurious, but this was heaven in a beautiful, 3 story building in the middle of Sevilla.   We made our way through the various baths, including one on the rooftop with a beautiful 360 degrees view of Sevilla and all its cathedrals illuminated in the nighttime, into the steam rooms and enjoyed a 30 minute massage.  Wow!  We left in a state of complete bliss and left to find our husbands and a nightcap before turning in and ending another epic day in paradise (after all, we’d just been at the Alhambra that same morning!)

Spain, I love you!

very low lighting so crappy cell phone photo but this was the bottom level of the spa and one of several baths.
very low lighting so crappy cell phone photo but this was the bottom level of the spa and one of several baths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Southern Spain Sampler Platter: Part 1

The final week of our Iberian Peninsula Tour happened in the blink of an eye, and simultaneously seemed to last twice as long as it actually was….which is to say it was a dream, a very fun and lively dream!

Renee & I enjoying the boardwalk of Cadiz.
Renee & I enjoying the boardwalk of Cadiz.

A combo of train + rental car whisked us down to the very southern edge of the peninsula, to what is reportedly the oldest city in Western Europe, Cádiz.  This city seemed slightly seedy and a bit in decay in comparison with the well-kept and wealthier towns of the north, but in a relaxed and easy-going way.  The old town is great for a long walk, weaving this way and that.  It has a weathered look, due to the high winds that give the old buildings a daily beating and there are long stretches of alleyways and tiny hidden plazas to add to the allure.  Given that the city is situated on an island (or maybe it was a peninsula) there is a long stretch of beach, although too windy for my liking.  Sunset on Playa de la Caleta (aka “James Bond Beach” given a famous scene filmed there in Tomorrow Never Dies“) is a standard stop for locals and visitors alike.  While Cádiz didn’t blow me away (well it sort of did, it was SOOOO windy), it still made for a unique and interesting stop and introduction into Andalucía.

SO. Windy. Catching sunset near "James Bond Beach"
SO. Windy. Catching sunset near “James Bond Beach”

Some of the old city fortress wall remains.

Some of the old city fortress wall remains.

One of the best decorated tapas bars we visited on the trip.  Fun atmosphere!  Casa Manteca - Cadiz
One of the best decorated tapas bars we visited on the trip. Fun atmosphere! Casa Manteca – Cadiz
The cathedral of Cadiz, set alongside one of many small plazas.
The cathedral of Cadiz, set alongside one of many small plazas.

From there we headed along the coast towards Gibraltar and a hopeful sighting of the Mediterranean.  This stretch of coast is called Costa de la Luz and is a delight as it is fairly wild and undeveloped.  The road climbed several times to places with a long view and before long we could see across the strait, to Africa!  In the town of Tarifa, we made an impromptu pitstop to admire this small town, gateway to Morocco and do a little daydreaming about the tiny towns with white houses that could be seen across the way in Morocco.  As we drove out of Tarifa we came across a really beautiful view of the Rock of Gibraltar.  This view ended up being  one of my favorites from the entire trip and I wish we’d snapped a photo of it as a keepsake.

Watchtower in Tarifa.
Watchtower in Tarifa.
Enjoying the view of Morocco off in the distance.  It'll be way better when I'm actually IN Morocco and admiring her up close, but for now, this will have to do.
Enjoying the view of Morocco off in the distance. It’ll be way better when I’m actually IN Morocco and admiring her up close, but for now, this will have to do.

We all agreed that spending a night in Tarifa would have been fun, but we had places to be, specifically the white town of Ronda.  As we headed further inland into Andalucía we entered the region that projects out to the world as the most Spanish.  This is the land of bullfights and flamenco, castles and andaluz villages, and is an area that has a unique history as it flip-flopped through the centuries between Moorish and Christian rule.

We passed the ruins of small castle-like structures along the way, before reaching our destination.  Ronda is built on the top of a cliff, on either side of a deep and narrow gorge.  The older part of the city is all white and with the vast expanse of green valley and farmland off in the distance, offers a beautiful view.  We were here for a late lunch and had time for a long walk, criss-crossing the gorge on a few of its famed and old bridges.  Ronda was a bonus stop, as we would have skipped it if we’d been short on time but thankfully we did have the time as it made for a much more well-rounded view of Andalucía.

Cliff-side town of Ronda.
Cliff-side town of Ronda.
Impressive bridge in Ronda, connecting the town on either side of the gorge.
Impressive bridge in Ronda, connecting the town on either side of the gorge.

 

The white town of Ronda.
The white town of Ronda.

It was one of those 40 hour days – we saw so much, enjoyed a great day of driving and arrived at our destination for the night and what we all expected to be a highlight of the trip:  Granada.

 

From Madrid, with Love

Riding the high from our impromptu visit to Porto, we arrived in Santiago de Compostela, back in the state of Galicia for a visit of this colonial city that has been on my radar for ages.  It was a fairly uneventful visit.  We stayed with a friend of the Lopez family and enjoyed another 2 nights tapeando, as it is another city that is setup for bar/tapa hopping.  Santiago has the same feel as San Cristobal, where we live, except better in the quality/cost ratio of food and drinks!  We weren’t there long enough to experience any other quality of living factors but it left us with a feeling of just having been somewhere very familiar.

We gave the camera a rest while in Santiago de Compostela so we hardly have any pictures, but here is one from one of our nights in Santiago.
We gave the camera a rest while in Santiago de Compostela so we hardly have any pictures, but here is one from one of our nights in Santiago.

And with that, our tour of northern Spain came to end.  We headed inland to the center of the country, to the busy capitol of Madrid.  Sad to leave the north behind but eager to start the final chapter of our Spring in Spain Tour, in the company of friends from Denver who were making their way across the pond.

I hadn’t really given much thought to Madrid.  It was simply a logistical stopover between our time in the north and our time in the south.  Both Luis and I had been before and we didn’t really have anything pressing that we wanted to accomplish while in town.  With that in mind our walk from the hotel to find dinner lead us through many interesting neighborhoods and right up to the entrance of the Reina Sofia Museum.  We were tired from a long day on the train and weren’t up for a long museum visit but learned it was free to visit on Friday evenings so we decided to at least go in and see a few famous pieces, primarily the Guernica, having just been in the town of Guernica the week prior.

Finding our friends in the hotel lobby the following day was nearly surreal…we’d talked about this trip for ages and it just seemed so strangely fun to suddenly meet up, with a fun city to explore on our doorstep.

Reunited and it feels so good....
Reunited and it feels so good….

Madrid proved herself 10 times over.  I didn’t expect much other than catching up with friends, but our afternoon exploring some of the main sites and trendy neighborhoods was a blast and Madrid pulled out her best weather for our afternoon walk.  Luis had earmarked a handful of tapas places that had been around for 100+ years (The Century Club) and we managed to find a couple of them and try their respective claims to fame!  In the course of a few short hours we found live jazz and then a traditional flamenco bar, along with several great stops for a quick cañita and tapa.  An epic end to a great day in Madrid!

Casa Alberto, one of the tapas bars from the Century Club.
Casa Alberto, one of the tapas bars from the Century Club.
Another stop from the Century Club.
Another stop from the Century Club.

After a night on the town it's time to hit the tracks...

After a night on the town it’s time to hit the tracks…

Fast forward a week later and Luis and I had some last minute changes to our return flights and found ourselves with an unexpected 10 hour layover in Madrid.  While it made for a lengthy return to Mexico, we were actually excited to have a few more hours to find a few more of the tapas places Luis had earmarked before and walk through a few more areas of the city.

Walking the streets of downtown Madrid one last time during our long layover.  There was a bar called "Iowa"! and another called "Nebraska"....apparently someone likes the Midwest
Walking the streets of downtown Madrid one last time during our long layover. There was a bar called “Iowa”! and another called “Nebraska”….apparently someone likes the Midwest

Checking out the seafood counter at Mercado de San Miguel

Checking out the seafood counter at Mercado de San Miguel

A few final tapas for the road. While the tapa we chose at this place wasn't anything to write home about, we were able to have one last glass of the white wine from the north that we'd fallen in love with: Txokoli
A few final tapas for the road. While the tapa we chose at this place wasn’t anything to write home about, we were able to have one last glass of the white wine from the north that we’d fallen in love with: Txokoli

 

One final taste of my beloved Gazpacho during our long layover in Madrid.

One final taste of my beloved Gazpacho during our long layover in Madrid.

Madrid, you are a sly one.  We came with zero expectations as we thought it was mostly a place to live and not visit, but instead we left loving you!!

 

The Stars Align – To Porto We Go!

I'm not sure how this panoramic image will show up on the blog post, but Luis is our in house panorama master and this one turned out fun!  Inside the Porto train station - a beautiful building!
I’m not sure how this panoramic image will show up on the blog post, but Luis is our in house panorama master and this one turned out fun! Inside the Porto train station – a beautiful building!

Without giving it much thought, we headed across the Galician peninsula, enjoying a sunny day.  We had expected it to take much longer but even with a detour for some amazing octopus for lunch, we suddenly found ourselves within a few kilometers  from the Portugal border.  Before the trip we had really wanted to spend some time in northern Portugal, but thought it would be too rushed….but here we were and the pull was just too great.  A quick stop along the Rias Baixas allowed time to stretch our legs, enjoy the view of the river-meets-ocean and quickly look for a hotel in Porto that had parking for the rental car.  Refreshed and newly excited at the prospect of spending some time in Porto, we speed across the border and on down to city, arriving just as the sun was setting.

The hilly streets of Porto.

We were immediately impressed  by this historic city, found where the Douro River meets the Atlantic.  With only 36 hours to explore this city where you could easily spend a week, we set out by foot to see what we could see and find what we could find!

In Old Town
In Old Town

What we found was a very pleasant city in which to wander.  The streets in the old town weave every which way and the walk is not for the faint of heart as it has SanFran-style hills in every direction.  The town is known for its azulejo (tile) facades on the old buildings, and while some buildings were in more of a state of disrepair than others, collectively they gave such an elegant and delicate look to the city.

Tea, Coffee & Hot Chocolate

Azulejos

Azulejos

One of the many streets the trolley passes through.

 

Eventually, any walk through Porto will spit you out along the river.  We crossed the river to the other side, having been told the view was magnificent from over there (it was) and that there were several port wine tastings and bodegas to visit on that side (there were.)  While neither of us care much for port wine, we decided to take an express tour of one of the oldest bodegas in Portugal – Sandeman’s.  It was a quick and simple 45 minute tour and we learned a thing or two and tasted a few ports (still not a fan!).

Porto from across the river
Some of Sandeman’s old flotilla of river boats are displayed as this is how for a long time they would move the barrels of Port Wine from the Douro Valley Vineyards

What goes up, must come down!  It was a long walk back up the various hills to the business district where our hotel was located but lots to see, taste and smell.

Starting our walk back up through the winding streets.
Starting our walk back up through the winding streets.

this is a city with many that provide a great view.  This is from the top of the bell tower.

this is a city with many that provide a great view. This is from the top of the bell tower.

While 36 hours doesn’t allow for much time to develop an opinion, our inkling is that this is a city worth coming back to.  The only thing we didn’t love was the food, but that was 100% because we made some poor choices.  That said, even poor choices were great in Spain so we were left a little disappointed by that aspect…but we’ll get it right next time!

 

 

Along the Cantabrian Sea

The Cantabrian Sea
The Cantabrian Sea

Time to road trip!!  Really looking forward to the next segment of our trip we set out on Saturday morning for a long drive along the northern coast.  For the next 3 days our itinerary was loose enough that we had the freedom to stop wherever and whenever.

The northern coast is absolutely beautiful and just my kind of coast:  jagged cliffs, rocky beaches and lots of vegetation that sneaks right up to the water.  It reminded us a lot of the portion of the Oregon coastline that we’ve explored.

Heading west out of Donostia we didn’t get too far before we had to stop, on recommendation from one of the men we’d met the night prior at La Sidreria Zelaia.  In Getaria, we tried a glass of of the local, light, white wine called Txokoli.  Don’t hold it against me that it wasn’t quite noon yet – it was simply divine!  Our drive continued along the coast with a few brief rain showers to liven things up a bit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Getaria
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Getaria
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Txokoli in Getaria

We turned inland to pay tribute to the town of Gernika, the lives that were lost and a community which was crippled during the horrific bombing of 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.  From there it was on to Bilbao, where we had thought we’d skip seeing the Guggenheim because we figured it would be too hard to find and too much of a detour, when out of nowhere we shot out of a tunnel on the freeway and were suddenly up close and personal with the iconic building.  We quickly switched up our plans given that we were now too close to NOT stop and while we didn’t go in to the museum, we enjoyed our picnic out on the grounds, under careful watch of the giant floral puppy that stands guard over the entrance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Guggenheim
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Picnic at the Guggenheim
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
One final drive by before leaving town

At some point we left the Basque Country and entered the state of Cantabria and overnighted in the city of Santander.  We were there just long enough to enjoy the best freakin’ calamari I’ve ever had in my life and enjoy a concert of the famed Joaquin Sabina – a momentously huge deal for anyone in the Lopez-clan!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Rabas – or fried calamari.

The second day took us through even more beautiful country as we continued our quest to fall deeper in love with the Cantabrian Coastline.  Stopping in the ever-charming town of Santillana del Mar we loaded up on local cheeses for future picnicking and had one last dose of cider and cider-sausage as we would soon be exiting cider-country.  Somewhere in between Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera the conversation inevitably shifted to “We should see how much it costs to rent a small bungalow here.   You know, I could write & you could geek out during the day and in the evenings we can ride our bikes to the local pub for a pint and a tapa….and then….”.

It’s that kind of place, that kind of scenery.

Fortunately the wind kept me sane and I didn’t call my broker up in the heat of the moment  to second mortgage our bungalow back home.  One thing I hate more than sand, is wind.  And it is windy up in these here parts.  But there would be windows in our little bungalow, right….and it can’t always be this windy….RIGHT???

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The historic town of Santillana del Mar
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Cider and cider-sausage.  The cider is always poured from a distance to aerate it a bit.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Santillana del Mar
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Approaching San Vicente de la Barquera
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
One of many oceanside bungalows we daydreamed about renting.

Alas, we left the dream behind and continued on towards our stopover point for the evening.  As we entered the state of Asturias, the giant, pointy, snow-capped peaks of the Picos de Europa National Park could be seen off to our left.  We were tempted to veer off to see if we could get to one of the lookout points into the national park, but smartly decided it would be too much for one day and found our way to Gijon, our pitstop point.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
From Ribadesella the Picos de Europa mountains loom in the distance
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Picnic for two!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Gijon, Asturias
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Main plaza in Gijon, Asturias

Our final stop on our tour of the Cantabrian coast was Praia das Catedrais Beach, which we found immediately upon entering the state of Galicia the following morning.  The love and friendliness we received at the Sidreria Zelaia just kept on proving itself, as this stop became part of our itinerary only after another man and regular of the cider joint and recommended it to us.  Not only had he told us we must go, but explained we had to time our visit during low tide, for the cathedrals to open up.  We were intrigued enough by this recommendation to go for it and timed our stop just as we’d been instructed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
During low tide each day this beautiful beach opens up.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Many “cathedrals” also appear, making for a beautiful place to explore
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Several “cathedral” formations in a row.  Good stuff!

With that beautiful stop behind us, we decided it was time to exit the coastal drive and head inland, into the heart of Galicia and over to the Atlantic side of the Iberian Peninsula.

Our route along the Cantabrian Coast
Our route along the Cantabrian Coast

Pays Basque & Pais Vasco

Shuttered window in Bayonne
Shuttered window in Bayonne

Shutters.  That is my take away from 2 days spent in the French Pays Basque.  The shutters that adorn the architecture in both Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz are stunning and apparently quite photogenic given the number of pictures I took of shutters.  It’s also where we were introduced to the delight that is a French cheese shop as well as honest-to-goodness chantilly!  Swoon!  We had a chance to walk (me), jog (Luis) along the Bay of Biscay for the first time and enjoy the tail end of the off-season on the Basque Coast.   While Bayonne proved herself worthwhile, Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be a dud of a stop.  The town seems to be a place that only exists for vacationers so it doesn’t really have a soul of its own, especially in off season.  Luis was excited to be in France to watch the soccer match between Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona, but it turned out that this is the only part of France where the average joe prefers rubgy over soccer and we were hard pressed to find a bar that was even showing the game, much less could offer something resembling an ambiance futbolera.  The highlight of my night in Saint-Jean-de-Luz was having our own bathroom after 4-5 nights of guesthouses with a shared bath – so that tells you a little something about how the place ranked in my book (although having your own bathroom IS something to greatly appreciate!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Bayonne & shutters
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Bayonne & more shutters
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We couldn’t help but stop and drool in every single ham shop we walked passed – this is that permagrin that I referenced awhile back!! :)  Ham=Happy!
IMG_20150415_111037
French Chantilly – Whoa. One bite of this and the harps of heaven begin to sound.
IMG_20150416_102240
Your everyday small town cheese counter

Before we knew it, we were back in Spain and into the heart of the Basque County, and the place our stomachs had been looking forward to most:  San Sebastian(Spanish) or Donostia (Basque).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We loved most everything about our time in Donostia.  It is a town well known for high quality food and tapas (known as pintxos here) and has a great culture of bar hopping.  We had a long chat with a woman who was telling us how things have changed over the years as restaurants cater more towards visitors and take less time to prepare traditional foods.  While she said she certainly could tell the difference – we obviously couldn’t and were over the moon with the pintxos on offer around the city.

pinxtos

We also got to experience the concept of La Sidreria! Sidra, or cider, is produced locally and is a popular drink in this region.  Many of the warehouses where the cider is stored before bottling open up as a restaurant.  There are several on the outskirts of Donostia and we chose to visit Zelaia.  A very well served 5 course meal was topped off with endless sips of fresh cider.  The idea is you only fill your glass with a sip or two and have it in between bites.  You eat standing for ease in walking to the nearest tap whenever you need something to wash down the amazing meal and the setup provides ample opportunity to chat with your neighbors.  We had such a delightful evening and we so surprised that the bill only came out to about 30 Euro per person.  An extraordinary value!

Luis getting a hit of cider, straight from the barrel.
Luis getting a hit of cider, straight from the barrel.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sidra!  While cider isn’t my beverage of choice, it was such a fun and unique experience!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Donostia in the twilight
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Overlooking La Concha beach/bay

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Donostia a la dramatic mode

Donostia would have made a perfectly good week-long stop and perhaps next time we return to Spain on a less hectic tour, we will do just that.

Peace, love & tapas,

Jess

Lured by Princes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I was in high school, my friend Blair and I watched Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves approximately 600 times.  When I learned that the medieval fortress where the movie was filmed was a short train ride away from Barcelona, I threw it in as an option.

We hemmed and hawed about which route to take to reach the Basque Country.  The Spain route would have taken us through Zaragoza and into the Rioja wine region and through Pamplona.  This route was packed full of potential but La Rioja and Pamplona just seem like places where we should move to, not just fly through in 3 days.  The France route offered a visit to my castle/fortress and would include a springtime train ride through the French countryside.  An added bonus: we could check out a bit of the French Basque Country (Pays Basque) before re-entering the Spanish Basque Country (Pais Vasco or Euskadi).  We chose the latter as it seemed a route more appropriate for a quick 3-day pass.

a late night arrival into France
a late night arrival into France

As a side note, Google just couldn’t believe that I wanted to visit Carcassonne and NOT Carcass Island and even after several searches it insists on auto-populating Carcass Island.

Side, side note, there is apparently a placed called Carcass Island, should you care to visit.

Carcassonne is a huge citadel and a beautifully romantic place to explore.  We got a chance to see it illuminated at night and then by day as well.  Inside Le Cité there are shops and restaurants and a few small museums.  We centered our visit around the  opportunity to try the local dish, cassoulet, made from beans, sausage and duck!  With a roasted cheese for an appetizer and creme bruleé for dessert – it ended up being one of our top meals of the month….although we had MANY top meals so perhaps that isn’t saying much.

Beautiful Carcassonne!
Beautiful Carcassonne!
People actually live here and see this out their window every day!
People actually live here and see this out their window every day!

We didn’t have time to do much exploring outside of the fortress, in what they call the lower city, but since it was off season it seemed a lot of things in that area were closed anyway.   As with other fortress cities I’ve recently visited, Jaisalmer and Campeche, it didn’t disappoint!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

A Plane to Spain

Where to start?  We’ve had an obsession with Spain for a long while now and had promised ourselves that 2015 would be the year we’d visit Spain together.  But I think we’d made the same promise in 2014 (and ended up in Uruguay) and also in 2013 (and ended up in Hawaii), and so on, so I was sure something would come up that would whisk us away to anywhere BUT Spain.  But, the stars aligned and we found ourselves on an Iberian flight to Barcelona.

On the flight over I gave some thought to the aforementioned Spain obsession.  Anyone who has spent much time in our company would know – we love tapas!!!  So that’s an obvious reason, but beyond that…well…..Luis reads the news like its his job and an unproportional amount of that time is spent reading Spain’s newspapers.  “Why?” I asked him.  He gave me a blank look.  There’s a familial connection to Spain, given that my sister-in-law studied abroad there and my father-in-law spends a month or more there each year as a visiting professor. Spain-centered topics often sneak into conversations at family gatherings.  While in grad school, Luis had the opportunity to go for a few weeks in between semesters and has been dying to get back ever since.  I forget why I didn’t tag along that time – probably didn’t have enough vacation time saved up.  Then there’s me.  I’d been given the privilege of visiting Spain on a high school trip and my mother arranged for me to spend a few extra weeks with a friend of hers in Madrid. Awesome, right?  I hated it. I know, I know, who in their right mind hates Spain?  Apparently and embarrassingly, my teen self.  What can I say, I was 15 (read: idiot) and at the time I was more concerned with my super-important social life that I was missing out on back home and I remember little of my visit to Spain other than counting down the days ‘til I could get back to doing…well….nothing, probably.  I needed to redeem myself.  I needed to go back to Spain and beg her for forgiveness.

And so we went.  And ate. And explored. And imbibed. And walked.  And laughed.  And loved.

Upon landing, it took maybe 30 minutes of swimming through the brain fog and jet lag before a permagrin emerged on both of our faces….and grin that pretty much stayed put for the duration of our “Spring in (mostly) Spain Tour”!

 As our departure date approached, the agony began in deciding WHERE within Spain to go.  It would take months to properly see and do everything that interested us.  It was quickly apparent that our usual preference for Slow Travel wasn’t going to work here.  Too much to see, too little time.  The Basque Country and the northern coast of Spain tugged at our hearts more than any other region, so that became the focus of our journey.

 But first, Catalonia and a quick border crossing to visit a restored medieval fortress.

B-A-R-C-E-L-O-N-A
B-A-R-C-E-L-O-N-A

One of the very few things I remember about that (torturous) teenage visit was La Sagrada Familia so we decided that our first stop would be to see how construction is coming along. The answer remains the same as it was back in 1995 – slowly.  This cathedral has been under construction since 1882 and continues to rise within the Barcelona skyline, slow and steady.  I documented its progress so as to have a reference to compare to the next time we’re in Barcelona and we continued on to the massive grounds of Parc Güell for a little exercise and views of the city.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Parc Guell
Parc Guell
Parc Guell is a busy place, especially on a Sunday
Parc Guell is a busy place, especially on a Sunday

Having those two “must-see” stops out of the way, we dedicated ourselves to doing what we do best, wandering through neighborhoods and eating as often as our bellies would allow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Paella is one of my favorite foods!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A night time walk in Barcelona
Barrio Gothico
Barrio Gothico
Markets with some divine Spanish ham
Markets with some divine Spanish ham


Barcelona is a really cool city and I’m happy we didn’t pass it over as we’d once considered.  It has great architecture and a fun and growing international vibe.  It’s easy to get around, has great biking and running paths, and the Mediterranean – all around A+!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

México Sur Roundup

deep in the mangroves in Chiapas
deep in the mangroves in Chiapas

Over the past month I’ve highlighted several of the destinations that make southern Mexico a true delight to all of the senses.  There are many more I could have included:  Valladolid, Comitan, Coffee Country in Chiapas, Naha, a botanero tour of Tapachula, Lagos de Montebello, the mangroves on the coast of Chiapas and more.  Plus, there are the many, many places I have yet to visit -Tonina, Calakmul, Becan and Mahahual come quickly to mind.

For this quick series I wanted to highlight my favorite 12 and want to consolidate them here (with links) so that there is a quick reference back to the series.

My dozen southern Mexico favorites

Floating in the crystal-clear waters of Bacalar.

Make your way to one of the seven wonders of the world at Chichen Itza.

Find yourself a hammock and a good book on the quiet beaches of Isla Holbox.

Visit the yellow town of Izamal.

Soak up the urban vibe in Merida.

Gawk at the pelicans in Celestun.

Fall in love with a pirate in Campeche.

Frolick through the jungle while you explore the ancient city of Palenque.

Head to the clouds for inspiring views at Las Nubes.

Contemplate deep-diving into the cenote at Chinkultic.

Have the beach to yourself in Boca del Cielo.

Go all Indiana Jones and explore Yaxchilan and Bonampak!

***********

And of course, San Cristobal de las Casas must be on any and all southern Mexico itineraries!!  I’m biased…but I’m right! :)

It’s a great place to explore, both on the well beaten path and off of it! Tie up your tennis shoes and come on down and play!

:-)
:-)