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.

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Espectacular España: Granada

Granada means pomegranate in Spanish, sits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and is home to the famous Alhambra.  Interesting fact:  Any Spanish word beginning with “Al-” was derived from Arabic, there are at least 4000+ Spanish words contributed from Arabic.  This was our second stop and one of my absolute favorites of our trip. This town had character and grit.  You could tell the Islamic influence was much greater in this city than Sevilla, and it’s something that’s celebrated and adds to the mix of cultures there. In addition, the history and architecture were just as fascinating.

The Alhambra is the last and greatest Moorish palace. It’s also the main attraction visitors from all over the world come to see. Many bloggers and sites strongly advise  you to buy your Alhambra tickets before your plane ticket, so that you have a reservation to plan your trip around the palace.  This place is very popular and permits a limited number of guests per day to preserve the site (~6600). The ticketing system had changed since I purchased our tickets months ago, therefore, you may have to dig a littler deeper into what pre-buying entails. Regardless, I can’t stress this enough- if you are traveling a long way and this is one of your absolute “must-sees”, you better make sure you have tickets, because you might be sorely disappointed if you can’t get in.  If you’ve read my Sevilla post, I also stressed online reservations for other “must-see” sights in that city too – a recurring theme.

Now, let’s talk about the seeing Alhambra.  The palace sits on a hill, which overlooks Granada, as a display of power and oversight when the Sultans ruled.  The grounds include not only the palace, but a fort, Charles V’s palace (built later), and gardens.  Picture it, the year was 1333 (Alhambra completed), mainland Europe was still steeped in the Dark Ages where poverty, ignorance, superstition, and illiteracy reigned supreme.  The Moors (Arabs) in southern Spain, comparatively, brought education, mathematics, philosophy, etc…from Northern Africa.  This part of Europe flourished during this time under Moorish rule.  One of the major themes of the Alhambra palace was the use of water features.  For the Moors, water was the greatest symbol of life.  In the palace there were pools, fountains, and other water features sourced from the mountain springs.  The Moors brought the technological know how of running water.  Everywhere in the palace there was water features and gurgling sounds.  Along with the water features, every inch of the interior walls were carved with intricate geometric designs along with Arabic script.  Where there weren’t carvings, tiles with symmetric geometric designs adorned the walls.  In every room you entered I would look down and see water, look to the walls for carvings, and then the ceilings had hand sculpted stalactites hanging from the ceilings.  The ceilings were beautiful in every room.  It’s hard to describe the inside completely, because if I did this entry would be about five to ten pages long.  Suffice it to say, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen like this, and it really is something you have to see once in your life.

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The Albaicín (or Albayzín) is Spain’s best old Moorish quarter and it’s also a definite must to just wander and get lost through all the narrow and maze-like streets. There’s also the San Nicolas viewpoint which has that iconic breathtaking view of the Alhambra. It’s so picturesque that Hubs and I went twice during our visit. We also found a family owned authentic Moroccan restaurant and it turned out to be one the best meals we had during our entire Spain trip.

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As per Rick Steve’s recommendation, Hubs and I signed up for an olive oil tasting tour. We had a small group of 8 people. The tour started off at the oldest preserved olive oil mill in Spain, that’s now turned into a museum. We then walked around some olive tree groves and came across olive trees that were 500+ years old (one pictured below) – they can produce olives for well over 1000+ years. I didn’t know olive trees could live that long!  There were several nearby in the same age range. Another fun fact is that Spain is the largest producer of olive oil. So, that Italian olive oil that is on your kitchen shelf- it may contain Spanish oil and then topped off with some Italian oil in order to market it as Italian olive oil.  Italy’s olive oil trees were affected by disease several years ago and they’re still not able to keep up with demand. After the tour info and sights, we got to the fun part, the tasting! They had us set up with what official olive oil tasters would use – dark blue glasses with a glass lid on top. Tasting is similar to how you would with wine. Take a sip, let it sit in your mouth, swish it around, and then swallow. The more “peppery” it feels in your throat equals freshness of the oil. I learned a few tricks of how the Spanish use the olive oils and can’t wait to incorporate them into our daily life. I, of course, couldn’t walk away without purchasing several bottles of the ones we liked.  I only wish we had more space in our luggage to bring back more.

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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 One)

I absolutely love Italy. I’ve been several times and have explored many areas of this beautiful country. Hubs and I just got back from eight nights on Lake Como. We flew into Milan Malpensa Airport, rented our adventure wagon and headed towards our destination – only about 60-90 minutes North. We stayed at the most incredible B&B, which happens to be in the same town that Mussolini and his mistress were executed when they tried to escape to Switzerland. We talked more with the innkeepers, and found out there are several unofficial stories of that fateful night. Apparently, Mussolini and his mistress were staying overnight at the same house where our inn is today, and were shot where we had breakfast every morning on the terrace.  The Italian partisans (resistance group) then moved their bodies down the street, to Villa Belmonte, and were shot again (by the right people this time…). Such a fascinating piece of WWII history!

In our eight days, we explored the famous towns of Bellagio, Varenna, Menaggio, Como and some little known ones such as Lenno, Tremezzo, Laglio and Mezzegra. Hubs and I had time to squeeze in two day trips – one on the Bernina Express from Tirano, Italy to St Moritz, Switzerland and a driving trip to Lugano, Switzerland. We also drove by George Clooney’s villa to see if we could visit the twins, but sadly, they weren’t home. Even with so much ground to cover, it was a very relaxing and low-key trip.

Bellagio was as charming as everyone has described it. The hotel in Las Vegas is based on the town. It’s definitely very touristy, but a must when visiting Lake Como. Como, the city, is known for its silk, so if you want a nice souvenir head over to the shop called Azalea (there’s two locations on the same street). It’s a family owned business that has an amazing collection of handmade and handprinted scarves and ties – all at reasonable prices. After all that silk shopping, hop on next door and have lunch at Bilacus or walk five minutes in the other direction for Barchetta. Beware of all the awful restaurants on the water. They’re tourist traps and the only thing you’ll remember is the view. 

Another popular lake town is Varenna. It’s not as popular as Bellagio, but I found that I loved it much more. Hubs and I loved getting lost in all the nooks and crannies. Our innkeepers told us to go to a restaurant called Al Prato and it didn’t disappoint! It was nice that it seemed there were more locals than tourists. There’s no waterview, but the service and food make up for it. While in Varenna, you must make a visit to Villa Monastero. Even if you’re not interested in the interior, just purchase the tickets for the garden. There’s an incredible amount of flora to walk through. Most importantly, the views across the lake are unsurpassed.

Moving further south, in the village of Lenno, there’s the well known Villa Balbianello. Built by Cardinal Angelo Durini in 1787, it was used for a while by Allied commanders toward the end of WWII. The villa has also been made famous as a filming location for Star Wars and James Bond – Casino Royale. Its dramatic landscape makes for, in my opinion, the best views of the lake – even better than Villa Monastero. It’s definitely a must and my favorite villa during our visit.  Here’s a tip – you can get to Villa Balbianello by taking a 10-20 minute walk over a hill, or use the water taxi from Lido di Lenno.  We took the water taxi there (€7/rt or €5/oneway), and walked back.  Arriving by boat makes it feel like a more “grand” entrance, plus the walk back has more downhills – easier on a hot day.

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Throwback Thursdays: Healing in Hong Kong

A few weeks after Hershey crossed the rainbow bridge, I told Hubs that there was no way in hell I wanted to be anywhere near Vienna when the one year anniversary mark hit. We looked around for a new place to visit and decided on Hong Kong. It was far away and didn’t resemble anything “European”. We left on Christmas day and flew with Turkish Airlines. This was before Austrian Airlines announced their new nonstop route from Vienna. I really didn’t care for Turkish Airlines and probably won’t fly them again.

Once in Hong Kong, it was like the breath of fresh air we desperately needed. We mainly went there to eat, take in the sights and heal. Hong Kong is very hilly and has lots of stairs. Thank goodness for the mid-level escalators in the center of the city.

The Hong Kong tram system is the only one left in the world that operates double decker trams exclusively. It was so charming and cool. We rode them every chance we got! Hubs and I also stood in line for Victoria Peak not knowing we already had the right tickets to jump to the front of the line. So when a family of four cut in front of us-I used some, ummm, choice words, loudly. Needless to say, they thought I was the crazy one. It was well worth it once we got to the top. The iconic views of  the Hong Kong skyline were amazing. Although extremely touristy, it’s a must-do.  If you decide to go to Victoria Peak, here’s a tip – use the bus instead of the tram to go up AND down the mountain.  Plus, the wait is much shorter both ways with the bus – and cheaper!

We also took advantage of going to a modern and “real” movie theater.  The American cinema company AMC exists there and paying the extra costs to be in the VIP room was well worth it. Like in most Asian cities, they jack up the air conditioning so high that you’re a popsicle by the time you leave. There were reclining leather seats with call buttons for an attendant to fetch you anything you wanted during the movie.

I didn’t find out until a day or two before the trip that there was a coffee shop named Hazel & Hershey in Hong Kong.  It was fate… I couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate Hershey’s life than this for the one year mark. They had really good matcha lattes and coffee; we went back a few days later for a second helping.

During our trip we also celebrated Hubs’ birthday. I surprised him with a buffet brunch at the Ritz Carlton on the 102th floor near the harbor on the Kowloon side. We had a special window table and the views were unsurpassed. The food was delicious, too. It was our last day in Hong Kong.

In many ways, this trip was healing for us. It doesn’t erase Hershey or the days leading up to his death, but it took away a lot of the pain associated with the time of year it happens to fall near. I know that Christmas and New Years will forever be bittersweet in our hearts.

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.

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London: Spring in Our Step

Living in Vienna has afforded me the opportunity to have a love affair with London. So much so, that I have returned on a number of occasions.  It’s a great metropolitan city that has things that Vienna doesn’t, such as: great shopping and a vast selection of international cuisines (which taste the way they should). A girlfriend and I planned to take advantage of both when we visited last weekend.

Emily and I arrived on a Friday night and had a “late night” snack at an Indian place right around the corner from our hotel near Earl’s Court. As we walked in, the place permeated in delicious scents. We were quickly seated and both decided to order thalis- it’s what the place is known for. It was a great and delectable start to our fun weekend!

I have been to London in the Winter, Fall and Summer and this is the first time in the Spring for both Emily and me. It’s a lovely time to go. The trees are in bloom and the weather is pleasant. So what did we do on a lovely spring afternoon in London? High tea of course! We decided to have afternoon tea at the first seating time, because if you’ve been to tea in London before,  you know it’s practically a meal in itself. It was so relaxing and filling.

After tea, we burned some calories shopping at Selfridges and checking out SoHo. We continued with our eating and shopping throughout the city the next day and hopped back on the plane to come home to our families. It was an amazingly fun trip and I can’t wait for more adventures with such a great friend.

 

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