Espectacular España: Madrid

Alas, our last stop on our whirlwind Spanish adventure. I’m not going to lie, we came to Madrid for the art, food and shopping!

The Prado Museum was a huge must on our list. But, instead of roaming around on our own, we hired a private guide (our tour group consisted of just four people). Hubs and I wanted to see all the important masterpieces of Velázquez and Goya, but not spend a huge chunk of time just running around or relying on time consuming audio guides. Instead, our guide focused on the history of 25 famous pieces in 1.5 hours. It was a perfect way to enjoy the highlights of the Prado and our guide was so passionate and knowledgable on everything about the artists and paintings we saw. His passion and enthusiasm definitely helped us enjoy and understand the pieces even more. After the art portion of the tour, we continued on to the second part: the food.  Our guide brought us over to the oldest (consistently running) restaurant in the world for lunch: Sobrino de Botín.  We had the privilege of entering the restaurant before it opened to get an all access tour of the place.   All of us had a delicious meal filled with laughter and very full bellies!

(**no pictures or video were permitted inside the Prado, so it didn’t even occur to me to take a picture of the outside.**)

If you’ve followed me on my blog or on Instagram, you know that I post a fair amount of food pictures. So it may come as a surprise that I’ve only mentioned one of our meals in my previous posts in Granada. There’s definitely a good food scene in Madrid. We went to a lot of markets and even tried Venezuelan food for the very first time! Even after 17 days in Spain, we still can’t get used to the fact that dinner time starts at 9pm! But, we did get the hang of having tapas sized portions every few hours to keep our energy up for all the walking (ahem, shopping) we did.

After all the shopping and the Prado there wasn’t much time for too many other things.  We explored Retiro Park and several neighborhoods. My favorites were La Latina and Cheuco/Malasaña areas. I’m a sucker for boutique-y, locally made, handmade, one of a kind type, independently-owned shops and there were plenty of them dotted all around the city! You could say that I helped the Spanish economy a bit with all my “Made in Spain” purchases. We will definitely be back to Madrid for a long weekend soon for more exploring, eating, and shopping!

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Espectacular España: Córdoba

Córdoba, a thousand years ago was considered a “metropolis” of the Islamic world.  It was on par with other Islamic cities, such as Baghdad in its time, with a population of around 500,000 – unheard of in those times.  It was a great cultural, political, financial, and literary center.  Under the Moorish rule, the three big monotheistic religions existed side-by-side:  Christian, Islam, and Judaism.  While Córdoba was under Moorish rule, Abd al-Rahman I, in 784, ordered the Mezquita to be built.  It was the grand mosque of its day, but as centuries went on it grew more grand through additional additions/renovations until the final update could accommodate up to 40,000 people for prayers.  In the 13th century, Spanish Christians in the north became more organized and overtook the Moorish city of Córdoba.  They forced the Moorish people, along with their cultural impact, to evacuate the city (many went further south to Granada as it would remain under Moorish rules for a few more centuries).  The Spanish Christians immediately decided the grand mosque should not be destroyed, but converted to a Catholic Cathedral.

We’re incredibly lucky the Spanish King, Ferdinand III, decided to convert part of the mosque into a Catholic Cathedral instead of razing it to the ground. It’s truly a feat of engineering, an architectural marvel, a masterpiece, a site that takes a minimum of a few hours to digest the wonder of it.  Upon entering the Mezquita you’re immediately floored by the 856+ columns supporting double-arches, in perfect horizontal and diagonal symmetric rows, which support the structure and roof.  The building is a large rectangle and in the center is where the Spanish Catholics decided to remove some columns and insert a more classic style cathedral featuring high arches, skylights, a choir area, an organ, and a pulpit.  You would never even realize the catholic cathedral was there if you stayed along the perimeter of the inside of the Mezquita.  The inside features Islamic artifacts and designs around the edges of the rectangular structure, including a still intact Mihrab as it was nearly 900 years ago.  The two religious building styles juxtaposed against each other is truly a wonder and a sight to behold.  Hubs and I spent two hours in the Mezquita trying as best we could to take it all in.  We took hundreds of photos, but you can’t sum up this place in a series of photos, or even a video.  You have to “feel” it to understand the brevity of its splendor.  I have to say it’s one of the most spiritual places Hubs and I have ever visited.  We were even lucky enough to have witnessed a wedding during our time inside.

If you do make your way to Spain to visit, go for the general admission ticket from one of the automated machines (avoid the evening sound and light private tour – no photos permitted). And, in order to get away from the crowds and tours, go around lunch (Spanish time) or after.

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After the visit to the Mezquita, we roamed over to the roman bridge to take some of the pictures of the city you see in guide books. Córdoba is a quiet town and after seeing the Mezquita all other discoveries were just the icing on the cake.

 

 

 

 

Espectacular España: Ronda

A few years ago while perusing other traveler blog posts, I came across one about Ronda, Spain. Up to that point, I hadn’t even heard of this little town in the middle of nowhere. The blogger’s pictures of a town perched on a cliff overlooking a gorgeous gorge was all it took for me to put it on the list! We spent one night in this little town just long enough to be able to meander down to see the gorge from below and take in the beauty of one of the largest ‘White Hill’ towns in Spain; it’s all the time you really need there.  A lot of folks actually try to do this as a day trip from Seville or Granada (albeit, a bit rushed). I feel like the more Hubs and I travel, the more we want to take our time in each place and be part of the scenery, instead of only seeing it from behind our cameras.   We’ve been privileged to have enough time to “smell the roses”, but it’s definitely not taken for granted.

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In addition to the gorge, we also learned that Ronda is the birthplace of modern Spanish bullfighting. This town is home to the oldest bullring in Spain. We made it just an hour before it closed, so we practically had the whole place to ourselves to explore. It’s quite amazing to see where the bulls are held and if you looked closely at the inside of the doors, you can see all sorts of horn gouges on the inside of the stall doors.

Side story at the Ronda bullring:  Hubs was off on his own taking a few photos at the horse stables, but needed to put his phone through the window bars to take some photos.  He got a couple, and then ‘oooops!’, he dropped his phone from about 10 feet, down into the horse stable courtyard.  The courtyard was inaccessible by visitors and he had to go ask for help with his broken Spanish, and even had to mime riding a horse to tell them where it was :’-)  He would have used Google translate, but ‘oooops!’ again, he didn’t have his phone.  The staff giggled a bit at his misfortune, but were very nice and helpful to retrieve it.  While we were waiting, one of the horses witnessed what was going on and stuck his tongue out at Hubs, almost laughing at him too.  In the end, Hubs was lucky the phone was in a case and uninjured from fall.

Espectacular España: Sevilla

Hubs and I  just returned from spending 17 days in Spain using the high speed rail and a rental car. Southern Spain has been on my must-see list since we moved to Europe in early 2013, and we’ve actually planned this trip several times in the past few years – only to replace it with another destination for one reason or another. Finally, we made it happen.  We started off by flying into Madrid from Vienna, and then catching a 2.5 hr AVE high-speed train (165mph!) a few hours later to Sevilla – a city known for flamenco, tapas, and an unmistakeable building/architectural style.

One of the main attractions in Seville is the Royal Alcázar. It’s a palace built by the Moors in the 10th century, but was rebuilt in the 14th century by Muslim workmen for a Christian king. Therefore, there are many Islamic influences and details throughout; and if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll recognize it as the filming location for “Dorne”. Instead of being one of those people who are “less than prepared, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, just show up, obnoxiously loud, do everything for me” (don’t be that person) traveler who waits until the last minute and stand in the queue that snakes around the building further than the eye can see…buy your tickets (way) in advance with a reserved time slot to enter.  You still have to wait a bit (<15 mins), but it’s definitely much faster. Or, another option is to book a private tour that ushers you straight in and get a lively history lesson while walking through, instead of those awful self-audio guides. The intricacies of this place was jaw dropping. Every corner you turn there are beautiful carvings and details that make you stop and think about all those artisans that made this palace into a work of art and how much time it took. Unbelievable. The gardens are also a sight to behold. We were at the Royal Alcázar for about two hours, but probably could’ve spend a bit more time there.

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Hubs and I also visited another famous sight called the Plaza de España. It’s a square of where the 1929 international fair was held, and the architecture style of that time is still dazzling to this day. The highlights of this place are the trademark Spanish tiles that depict each province of Spain.

Unfortunately in Sevilla, Hubs came down with a stomach bug and while he was recovering at the AirBnB, I went out exploring the beautiful streets and neighborhoods of Sevilla. There were so many nooks and crannies to get lost in and practice taking pictures with my new camera. I found the Metropole Parasol to be a fantastic place to get to try all the different settings on my new toy.

When it was finally time to say goodbye to Sevilla, we made a pit stop just outside of the city in our rental car. Hubs and I took a little detour north to see the Archeological site of Italica. Italica was once a grand Roman city, founded in the south of Spain by Scipio Africanus in 206 BC.  Why are these roman ruins particularly interesting to me? It’s the filming location of the one of the most famous scenes in season 7 of Game of Thrones. Yes, we totally geeked out and had to see the “dragon pit”. Although these ruins aren’t well known, they are now with the help of the hit HBO series. It’s well deserved too, because the well preserved Roman city is definitely worth a visit – even if you don’t follow the show.

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Throwback Thursdays: Girls’ Getaway in Amsterdam

Emily is one of my favorite people and we travel well together. She’s a mom of two amazing boys, but sometimes mommies need a break too! So, now it has become an annual thing that we take a girls’ weekend away. We pick somewhere and just go! This trip was especially special because she was also celebrating a milestone birthday. Amsterdam, here we come!

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As an added bonus I found a really cool houseboat that we rented out for the weekend. What’s more quintessential than staying in a houseboat in Amsterdam?!

When you think of the Holland, tulips have to be the first thing you think of – unless you were thinking of windmills. It’s been on both of our must-do lists to see the tulip fields in Holland. We picked the perfect weekend in April 2016 for it! I couldn’t believe all the vibrant colors we saw. It was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

The last time I was in Amsterdam it was with Hubs and we never made it to the Rijks Museum. Well, Emily and I made it a mission to go. To be able to appreciate the Night Watch and other famous paintings in real life was a dream come true. We also made sure to eat our way through the city. Another awesome girls’ getaway weekend in the books!

Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part Three)

When in Italy, you must eat! And that we did. We were gluttons and could not turn down all that homemade pasta, gelato, pastries, fresh lake fish and other seafood we gorged on. We’re paying dearly for it now that we’re back.

Real Italian food is simple and usually has no more than five ingredients in their dishes. Anything more than that makes it questionable if it’s truly authentic.  Things like Fettuccini Alfredo and “Italian” dressing are examples of American inventions. I honestly didn’t know any differently until I visited Europe for the first time in 2008. My taste palette has certainly changed since then!

The food at our B&B was fantastic; the breakfasts were so so good.  One evening they offered a home-cooked four course meal and it turned out to be the best meal during this trip to Italy. We were spoiled. Our typical breakfast spread had omelettes, fresh vegetables and fruits from their garden, homemade olive oil harvested from their olive groves, homemade pastries and jams, cheeses, Italian cured meats, and yogurt made fresh every morning. It was a feast that filled our happy tummies until it was time to eat again.

Now, let me get to our best and favorite meal of our stay. The innkeepers offered a four course meal for all of their guests for a nominal fee, which is normal for an agriturismo in Italy. The lake fish caught fresh that morning to the homemade lasagna made with fresh noodles and herbs from the garden were so incredibly delicious. And even after our return, we’re still dreaming about it. Do yourself a favor and eat your way through Italy- you won’t regret it!

Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part Two)

Two weeks before our trip , Hubs searched for the best train routes in Europe and “BAM!”, there it was. The Bernina Express, only a 90 minute drive from Lake Como.  The complete line runs from Tirano, Italy to Chur, Switzerland.  To get it in as a day trip we could only do one third of the line – Tirano to St. Moritz, Switzerland.  The ride in one direction was 2.5 hours.  We started our journey from our B&B around 7:30am for Tirano, got there with plenty of time to buy our bottles of water and boarded the train for St. Moritz.  

Tirano is nestled in a valley, near the border of Switzerland, at 429m(1407ft) above sea level.  At the apex of the ride, the train would climb to 2253m(7392ft).  The Bernina Express features large panoramic windows to enable great views all around.  The only downside on that day was the light rain, which made it a little more difficult to see things and take pictures, but only at the beginning of the ride.  Towards the middle the skies cleared and it was partly sunny for the remainder of the journey.  During the climb into the Alps, the announcement (in Italian, German, and English) stated the train would climb 70m for every 1km of track (7% grade), pretty steep!  We jaw-dropped at beautiful greenish-white lakes, alpine valleys, and near the top there were glaciers!  Hubs was most excited about the Kreisviadukt Brusio, a circular part of track used to gently ascend or descend elevation. At the highest part of the ride was the station Ospizio Bernina in the Bernina Pass.  There was a glacier lake reservoir there called Lago Bianco.  It was breathtaking and the pictures surely don’t do it justice.  The runoff from this lake on one side runs to the Adriatic Sea, the other side ends up in the Black Sea – which we found interesting.   

After the Bernina Pass the train started descending for about another 45 minutes until we arrived in St. Moritz, Switzerland at 1775m (5823ft) elevation. St. Moritz is a posh ski town and is alive in the Winter.  In the summer time…not so much.  It seemed like a ghost town, but a perfectly clean, not one speck of dust, symmetrical, perpendicular, everything in its place type of ghost town.  The city is perched on a hill overlooking a gorgeous alpine lake with the snow capped Alps far in the background.  You could sit there for hours and just gaze.  But, since we were there for lunch we had to put our gaze on hold and look for food.  The other thing I know about Switzerland is that it’s crazy expensive. We found a nice little place in the middle of town, we each had a normal size entree and shared a 1.5L bottle of water.  €50 later we headed out for more gazing.  Of that €50, €10 was for the water – which Hubs saw them fill from what looked like a draught nozzle; Switzerland’s finest mountain tap water.  From there we went to a local hotel, an old castle or palace.  It had a perfect balcony and seating area for a coffee and a tea to relaxingly gaze at the beauty.  Perhaps that’s how Switzerland makes you forget that you just drank a €9 coffee and €14 tea.

The gazing had to end and we made our way back to the train station, not before picking up a box of delicious Swiss chocolate to enjoy on our ride back to Tirano.  On the way back, we saw the same sights again, but this time we could just gaze at them (are you sensing a theme?), without the rush to take as many photos as possible.  It was a much more relaxing ride back.  After arriving in Tirano, the gazing ended and prices went back to normal.  We jumped in the car and headed back to our B&B.

If we ever do the Bernina Express again, it will be in the winter.  Supposedly, riding the line when everything is snow covered is another sight to behold.  Plus, it’s also been suggested to ride the Bernina Express outbound and then use the regular commuter train for inbound.  Commuter trains are cheaper, and you can lower the windows for all the unobstructed pictures your camera can handle.  There are other famous train routes in Europe we hope to get to sometime, but definitely put this one on your list!

 

Darling Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik has been on our bucket list even before our move to Europe. Hubs and I have heard nothing but great things about Dubrovnik. After four and a half years, we finally made our way “next door”. Austrian Airlines flies non-stop from Vienna to Dubrovnik, seasonally. It’s definitely not the cheapest option, but most convenient – a ten hour drive vs. a 75 minute flight.  We’ll take the flight, thanks.

We landed and quickly started our journey to the city. As soon as we caught the first glimpse of Dubrovnik, it literally took our breath away. Our driver was kind enough to stop for us to capture that moment from the road along the cliffs overlooking the city.

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As soon as we got settled into our AirBnB, we set out to explore the city. We didn’t want to do too much as we had a Game of Thrones tour the next day.

Hubs and I became Game of Thrones fans during our first few months living in Vienna. We binged watched the first two seasons before the start of the third. A lot of the filming takes place in Northern Ireland, Spain, and Croatia. Dubrovnik is the primary backdrop for Kings Landing. The locations tour was fascinating and we had to use a lot of our imagination due to the CGI add-ons. The Red Keep is completely digitalized, but you can see the foundation they used. We got to see the famous sights for some of the iconic scenes from the show, such as, Cersei’s walk of shame, the Purple wedding, Myrcella leaving for Dorne, etc. It was great to get a feel of how much work goes into filming just one scene. At the end of the tour, we had the option to visit a very touristy shop that had a replica of the Iron throne. As cheesy as it might seem, I had to take my turn and try it out!

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The rest of our time in Dubrovnik was spent climbing A LOT of stairs. Steep and sometimes cumbersome- anyone with leg/knee problems would have a really tough time. I felt like my legs were going to give way a few times, especially in the heat.

We also did a day trip to the island of Lokrum. It’s the closest island to Dubrovnik, only a 15 minute boat ride from the old harbor. An old monastery on Lokrum is the set for Qarth. The island’s native inhabitants are peacocks and rabbits. People mainly go there to swim, sunbathe, kayak and hike. We only stayed for a couple hours, but could’ve easily spent the whole day there if we had more time.

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Overall, I’d say Dubrovnik is a great long weekend getaway- but if you want to take your time and see other places nearby (Bosnia, Montenegro and other islands), it could easily become a one or two week holiday. I’d also recommend going during shoulder season. We were there just as the cruising and high season started and seeing people being herded like sheep with their paddle-holding guide leading a large group of (loud, rude, shouting) tourists can be overwhelming, especially in such high concentrations.

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Throwback Thursdays: Hunting for Polish Pottery

I’m going to restart my Throwback Thursdays series to backtrack and blog about the adventures we took over the last year or so. Those who follow me on Instagram have seen glimpses of what we’ve been up to. It’s the only platform of social media that I use consistently these days.

Hubs and I like to make use of the office holidays he gets here, and this year the dates all happened to fall on a Friday or Monday – perfect for long weekend getaways. At the beginning of May 2017, we went on a road trip to Poland. Our first visit to Poland was in summer of 2015, and we went to Krakow and Auschwitz.

The itinerary this time was Boleslawiec and Wroclaw. If you recognize the name Boleslawiec, then you know it’s world renowned for its unique pottery – in this case, think of everyday dishes bowls, mugs, etc… Many military wives and expats who live within an eight hour drive have gone on weekend expeditions (yes, multiple!) to buy heaps of this stuff.  When I mean heaps, I mean American sized SUVs/mini-vans filled to the brim with boxes and boxes of the pottery. The parking lots were filled with Jeeps, Odysseys, etc. These were dead giveaways of the presence of American military wives since they usually ship their vehicles from the states during their time overseas.

I first heard about the Polish pottery when I happened upon other expat wives blogging about day and weekend trips there. It piqued my interest and I started to do the research. Boleslawiec Pottery is only made with locally sourced clay only found in that particular region of Poland. The intricacies of these hand painted and handmade pieces are just exquisite. There are many collectors and it’s super expensive to buy authentic pieces outside of Europe. Hence, the reason why people come here to buy Costco amounts of this stuff. It’s so affordable to buy it in Poland. I love the fact that it’s dishwasher, oven, microwave safe AND super sturdy. There are many categories of the pottery and usually people buy GAT (quality) 1 or 2 for the above mentioned purposes. The other categories (below 2) are usually just “for show” or decorative pieces. As you can see from the pictures, I had a bit too much fun.

 

I also should mention that it was our very first time trying homemade Pierogis. I also had this savory potato pancake-like dish with goulash stuffed inside. OH. MY. LORD, comfort food at its best! So delicious! My mouth is watering even as I type this.

Onto to Wroclaw! We spent two nights in this charming little city. It’s often mistaken for Warsaw. What was really nice is that it’s not crawling with “English speaking” tourists-yet. Most locals couldn’t speak or understand English-which was quite refreshing. Hand gestures and pointing were greatly appreciated. We loved going on a “scavenger hunt” for the famous dwarf statues of the city. Did you know that there are over 400 of them dotted throughout the town? We found 40 of them during our short stay.

Poland has really captivated us and I have a feeling we’ll be making more road-trips back to explore more of this lovely country!

Til the cows come home

The state of Tirol in Austria has been on our list since we moved here and just got around to it this week! I’m still a bit “giddy” from our trip.  The main draw for us this year was to attend an event called Almabtrieb. It’s German for “cattle drive”. In the alpine regions of Europe, farmers lead cows up to alpine pastures to feed during the summer. When autumn comes around, the cows are led back down to the valleys. This is a celebrated tradition and has become popular to tourists and locals over the years. I purposely picked a weekend where Hubs and I were able to experience three different ‘Almabtriebs’ in three small villages.  As you’ll see, I went a little overboard with pictures and videos.

I was tickled with joy when the cows paraded into town with massive bells ringing, some of which were decorated. If there weren’t accidents on the mountains, the cows would be decorated elaborately with garlands. In all the Almabtriebs we saw, there were no accidents.  When the cows were finally herded to their temporary destination after the village celebration, they are then returned to their owners to graze on grasses in the valleys. Spectators then retreat into tents for food, beer, music and awards. It was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget.

Aside from the cows, we explored the beautiful landscapes of the Austrian Alps. We’ve never seen grass in such a beautiful shade of green.  The high alpine lakes are also brilliantly clear, clean, and a lovely shade of green when seen from above. It was breathtaking how you could see forever in the valleys and every turn was more gorgeous than the last.

After the Almabtriebs ended we headed to our next destination, Innsbruck.  It was our jumping off point for a few activities, and Hubs had never been to the city.  I visited it a few years ago on a whirlwind tour of Europe with my mother.  I didn’t remember it too well, so it was nice to refresh my memory.  We only had one sunny day there and made the most of it.  One of my best friends has raved about rodelbahns (think of a bobsled track with roller coaster rails) that she and her family go to every year. That gave me the idea to find one near Innsbruck, in Tirol. Hubs and I had the opportunity to ride one in a nearby ski village called Zillertal. It was so fun! But, I was a bit bummed that they hadn’t yet completed the installation of the camera thingy catching you enjoying the ride.  Maybe next time.  We also had a fantastic Tyrolean lunch perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the valleys.  Did you know that Swarovski Headquarters are in Innsbruck?  I sure did.  Hubs did not.  He was kind enough to put up with the tour and had coffee in their cafe while I “looked around”.

We took our time driving back and in each small village we passed through we would look for cows, slow down, roll down the windows and listen for the distinctive “clang, cling, clong” sounds of the cows in the field.  It was a memorable road trip and if we get the chance to go back to Tirol, we’ll be sure to be there with bells on.

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