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: 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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Home Leave (this time without the bulk)

Hubs and I wrapped up the summer with a trip back to Maryland to visit family and friends. Over the years, we’d stock up and pay extra luggage fees to bring back heaps of American stuff you can’t find overseas. After reading “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, watching the documentary “The True Cost” and experimenting with capsule wardrobes, it’s changed the way I am as a consumerist. So, even though we nested an empty medium suitcase inside of a large empty one, expecting the craziness of buying up everything in sight, we actually only bought stuff that fit into the empty medium suitcase and donated the large one we left behind. For the first time, we came home with only two medium sized suitcases and carry on’s. Which also included a few requests from our friends in Vienna.

We spent a lot of time with family and friends and eating lots of crab cakes.  There’s nothing like that delicious blue crab taste anywhere else in the world! Jumbo lumps of crab with very little filler is how a crab cake should be.  And Maryland sweet corn, with their delightfully silvery-white kernels, nom-nom-nom-nom.  Crab cakes and corn were the first meal when we arrived and the last dinner before we left.  Perfect.

Unfortunately during our visit,  I suffered from a case of food poisoning that resulted in an ER visit, because of dehydration.  I was on the BRAT diet and antibiotics for the rest of the time in MD. It was horrible and put a wrench in an already short visit, but we got to see almost everyone we wanted to spend time with. Being home was a near perfect way to end our summer.

*Disclaimer: There are no pictures while at my in-laws, because I locked myself in the bathroom the whole time during our visit with food poisoning*

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Throwback Thursdays: An Epic Road Trip (Part Two)

Hubs and I flew into Edinburgh to start our Scottish journey and second leg of our epic road trip. We immediately headed towards Stirling, because it would make our next leg a bit shorter than if we were to leave from Edinburgh. One tip that some friends have told us when we were in the planning stages is to add in buffered time during the drive across Scotland. So, if it was going be a five hour driving day – allocate eight. Why? Because our friends predicted we would stop every few minutes to take in all that rugged beauty. They were right. Plus, there aren’t really highways in Scotland, only super scenic two lane roads.

Our first stop after our short stay in Stirling was Isle of Skye. It’s the largest island of the inner Hebrides archipelago. We stayed at the most wonderful bed and breakfast. The location, innkeepers, rooms, and breakfasts were first class. Too bad, they’ve changed it to a self-catering place recently, otherwise we would’ve gone back every chance we got. Skye is that spectacular; we’d go back in a heartbeat. The landscape is unlike anything Hubs and I have ever seen. Pictures just don’t do this place any justice – but we tried! Several movies and tv shows have shot in Skye.

After a few nights in Skye, we headed back across the Highlands to Inverness, our base for the next five days. We went to seek out Nessie one day, sadly, she didn’t make an appearance. However, we did find a gem of place for lunch – thanks to local recommendation. Hubs and I took several day trips to:  – North Sea coastlines, mountain lochs, castles, jaw-dropping scenery and lots and lots and lots of sheep.

On our way back to Edinburgh, we made a pit stop at Balmoral. Balmoral is one of the royal family’s holiday homes – the Queen spends her summer holidays there. Hubs and I explored the grounds, took our pictures and continued onto Edinburgh. If you’re a Harry Potter fan like us, it’s amazing to see all the street names and places that JK Rowling got inspiration from for her novels.  There’s a graveyard in Edinburgh where she supposedly got the name Tom Riddle for her books.  We sought it out and found it.  Edinburgh was a very easy city to get around, we walked a lot and took advantage of the double-decker bus system.  Hubs and I also walked the Royal Mile at least twice and took in their scenic public park on more than one occasion.  We gave in and did the touristy ferris wheel as well, but it did let us get some nice photos.

Scotland was hands down my favorite of both countries we explored over three weeks and perfect conclusion to our epic road trip. We still need to hit Northern Ireland and the unseen parts of Scotland-maybe another trip is in order for 2018?

Throwback Thursdays: An Epic Road Trip (Part One)

Three weeks, two countries, and many lasting memories sums up our road trip through Ireland and Scotland.

Hubs and I flew into Dublin and picked up our adventure wagon for the next ten days in Ireland. Since we arrived a bit later in the day, we opted to spend the night in Dublin (but not really seeing it…yet). It was a good thing, because it gave time for Hubs to get acclimated to driving on the left side of the road. After a full Irish breakfast, we headed toward our next pit stop; Avoca Mills in Kilkenny. It’s Ireland’s oldest working mill and still remains an Irish run business. Obviously, I had to pick up some beautiful handwoven wool scarves which come in handy for our harsh Vienna winters.

We arrived in the coastal town of Kinsale, next, where we spent one night. It’s such a cute little colorful town. We had one of our best meals there – fresh scallops and mussels. Hubs and I then proceeded to Dingle. We stayed on the Peninsula there, because it’s still under the radar compared to the tourist-heavy Ring of Kerry and it was great jumping off point to Killarney National Park. I also wanted to stay at a particular bed and breakfast. It was a relaxing driving through the park, Wild Atlantic way and exploring the peninsula for the next five days.

I’ve always wanted to stay in a real castle…who wouldn’t?!  So, we made a special overnight stop at the famous Ashford Castle in Cong, Ireland. The grounds were beautifully manicured and positioned right on a lake.  Ashford Castle also featured a falconry school, the oldest one in the country.  We definitely took advantage and registered for a private session with one of the falcon handlers.  Our falcon’s name was Lima and supposedly one their best falcons (so he said). It was such a cool experience being able to hold and feed a falcon perched on my arm. They’re quite majestic little, heavy, creatures.

Our last stop was Dublin for two nights to explore. It’s like a miniature London, but with a bit more grit.  I would say the highlight was our visit to Trinity College Old Library where the Book of Kells is on display.  The book contains the four gospels of the new testament, and estimated to be written around 800AD!  After having an amazing meal, two nights in a row, at a little whole in the wall type place (Klaw),  we left the next morning for the Dublin airport to start the second half of our journey from Edinburgh, Scotland.

 

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!