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!

DSC01955

Advertisements

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.

lrg_dsc01709-1lrg_dsc01715-1

lrg_dsc01617

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.

IMG_7721

IMG_7728

lrg_dsc01262lrg_dsc01429lrg_dsc01298lrg_dsc01336lrg_dsc01271lrg_dsc01444-1

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.

lrg_dsc00089

lrg_dsc00129

lrg_dsc00153

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.

lrg_dsc00578

 

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!

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!

A Long Weekend in Lisbon

One by one we’re checking places off our European bucket list, with Lisbon being our latest adventure. It’s a coastal city which has elements of Mediterranean cities we’ve visited. It’s also commonly likened to its sister city, San Francisco. Having visited both, I can see the similarities of the hills, cable cars, and even having the same architect that built the famous Golden Gate bridge with a similar one of their own.  It is also considered one of the oldest cities in the world, predating other modern European capitals such as London and Rome by centuries.

Hubs and I left on Wednesday night and came back Sunday afternoon. We did a lot of sightseeing and eating, but felt like we’ve only scratched the surface. We even took a day trip to the suburbs of Lisbon – a UNESCO town of Sintra, strolled the streets of Cascais and saw the most western point of the European continent.  Does it merit another visit in the future? Maybe. But for now, I’ll let the pictures speak for how beautiful and tasty Lisbon was/is.

 IMG_5683IMG_5699 IMG_5715 IMG_5717 IMG_5728 IMG_5729 IMG_5732 IMG_5735 IMG_5737 IMG_5738 IMG_5739 IMG_5851IMG_5742 IMG_5747 IMG_5750 IMG_5753 IMG_5760 IMG_5773 IMG_5776 IMG_5782 IMG_5790 IMG_5798 IMG_5813 IMG_5817 IMG_5822 IMG_5824 IMG_5842 IMG_5846 IMG_5847 IMG_5863 IMG_5865 IMG_5871 IMG_5877 IMG_5857 IMG_5858 IMG_5860IMG_5895 IMG_5899IMG_5766IMG_5764IMG_5767IMG_5885IMG_5886IMG_5887IMG_5888IMG_5889IMG_5890

 

 

 

 

Chocoholics Rejoice!

Belgium is mostly famous for two things: chocolate and beer. I don’t drink, but Hubs is a huge beer connoisseur. With that in mind, I had arranged for us to spend a Sunday afternoon, apart, tasting our favorite things.

When I first arrived in Brussels I was overwhelmed with all the chocolate shops. Every other store was a chocolate shop. You had your mainstream ones such as Godiva, Neuhaus and Leonidas and the smaller chocolatiers that are only available in Belgium. Even with all my research, it was hard to tell which ones were special and which ones would be generic enough to find at a grocery store. I signed myself up for a chocolate tasting tour that explored shops, which took us from the low to high end of the scale. Honestly, I had no expectations going in, but I was surprised how much I learned about chocolate and how to use your palette to taste. It’s akin to differentiating between wine brands.

For instance, the longer the expiration date, the lower quality chocolate brand. Usually, an extended expiration date would indicate the products include preservatives and fillers. For the really good stuff, there’s none of that crap.  Fresh chocolates with all natural products have to be eaten in less than two weeks. You know the famous brand Godiva? You will never find a Belgian wandering in those stores in Belgium or anywhere abroad for that matter. According to our guide, it has the worst value for the money. Surprising.

When I think of good chocolate I expect handmade, preservative-free quality goodness. And this tour went beyond my expectations. We even tasted a chocolate that goes through a 25 step process to be made! It was well worth the €25 for a box of nine pieces I came home with. You only live once, right?

Overall, it was a fun and informative experience and I got to see parts of the city I hadn’t yet explored. The downside to this, is, that I can never look at chocolate the same way again. I am now officially a chocolate snob!

IMG_5435IMG_5436IMG_5627 IMG_5630 IMG_5631 IMG_5634IMG_5636 IMG_5641 IMG_5624IMG_5621

IMG_5646IMG_5648

It took a lot of restraint not to bring home more than what I bought. We’ve already gone through the box to the far left and right.

IMG_5652