Claire Came to Visit!

Claire, my wonderful sister-in-law, came to visit the week after Thanksgiving and we had such a blast introducing her to England! It’s been so long since I’ve seen my siblings or siblings-in-law, and it was so nice to spend a week with Claire. We visited York, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Birmingham, and London. Continue reading “Claire Came to Visit!”

Claire Came to Visit!

Visiting Salisbury and Winchester

Salisbury Cathedral

Prior to our move abroad, I picked up Edward Rutherford’s epic novel Sarum and somehow managed to reach the end. This book provides a sweeping history of England by tracing various families from neolithic times to the 20th century. The majority of the 1,000 pages are set in present day Salisbury, Continue reading “Visiting Salisbury and Winchester”

Visiting Salisbury and Winchester

Spain Part IV: Seville

View from the Tower

Happy Thanksgiving week everyone! It’s about time I finish up the Spain posts. Lotssssss of pictures from Seville so let’s dig in. Seville is much larger than Avila or Toledo and we walked a ton over our three day stay. We saw and ate quite a bit. Here are three highlights and some recommendations: Continue reading “Spain Part IV: Seville”

Spain Part IV: Seville

Spain Part III: Toledo

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View of Toledo from across the Tagus River. The Cathedral and Alcazar tower over the city.

I wonder if UNESCO’s World Heritage Site office needs a brand ambassador… I’m quickly becoming one of their biggest fans. If you’re traveling or planning a trip and something is listed on the world heritage register, do yourself a favor and make sure you check it out. Like Ávila, the whole city of Toledo is on the list, and this was my favorite stop on our Spanish roadtrip. Also, FYI, it is not pronounced like Toledo, Ohio. The vowels and the “d” are all very soft – good luck.

Streets of Toledo

The drive from Ávila to Toledo was gorgeous. Tell me this doesn’t make you question the point of leveling the land and cramming millions of people together in relatively small spaces. I prefer the below.

Driving Avila -> Toledo

Driving Avila -> Toledo

Anyway, Toledo is known as the city of three cultures thanks to the history of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coexistence (and rivalry). The churches, synagogues, and Mudejar architecture are gorgeous and the city is very well cared for. It is larger than Ávila with more to see and do, very hilly, and very walkable. The Spanish painter El Greco lived here and his pieces pepper the churches and museums. If you’re a fan of his this is a great city to visit.

We visited the 13th century cathedral, 14th century El Transito Synagogue and Sephardic Museum, 16th century Museo-Hospital de Santa Cruz (free in the evening for the last hour or so), 14th century and Mudejar style Iglesia de Santo Tome which contains El Greco’s famous painting Burial of Count Orgaz, and wandered and wandered and wandered. If the weather is nice, losing yourself in the tiny streets is such fun.

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Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo. One of three Gothic cathedrals in Spain, also featuring Mudejar and Spanish Renaissance styles.
Synagogue El Transito
Synagogue El Transito with its rich stucco and elaborate Mudejar ceiling
Toledo and Merida iPhone
Courtyard with olive trees at the Museo de Santa Cruz

Due to the constant need to navigate through the twisty streets, I didn’t use our camera as frequently so some of these pictures are from my phone. Sorry about the quality!!

Toledo and Merida iPhone

Everything in Toledo seems so ancient. In fact, our Airbnb was one of six “modern” buildings in the city. Meaning it was built in the late 1800s! I love the grandness and detail of the doors, the cobblestone streets hardly wide enough for a Vespa, and all the efforts to preserve the past. Many shops sell traditional Toledo steel knives, swords, and collectors’ items. The steel-working trade has been a major part of life in Toledo since 500BC. You can also watch damasquinado artists at work, decorating steel with threads of gold and silver. I picked up a pair of damasquinado earrings and had to force myself not to buy more. You don’t have to own to appreciate has become one of my mini-mantras as we travel. So much pretty around every corner and as much as I want to take a piece of every place home with me, I can’t fit it all in my carry-on only life!

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Toledo and Merida iPhone

Plaza de Zocodover
Plaza de Zocodover, the main square. Site of former markets, bullfights, and public burnings

Exploring Toledo with parents!

We bought a box of marzipan de Toledo (some sort of special recipe) and had some wonderful food and wine here. If you’re eating out often, learn how to ask if the bread is free with dinner, because it usually is not, and unless you can eat a whole bread basket, it’s a total waste.

One final observation: attending mass in Spain will not give you free access to the cathedrals. We tried in every city except Madrid where the cathedral is free. This trick works really well in Italy and in England. Attend a service or an “evensong” (St. Paul’s… Westminster Abbey…) and you’re good. In Spain, you enter a small chapel through a separate door, say your prayers, and out you go.

We spent 2 nights in Toledo and then drove south to Seville, stopping briefly in MĂ©rida to see some Roman ruins and have lunch.

MĂ©rida Aqueduct
Acueducto de los Milagros

MĂ©rida Aqueduct

MĂ©rida contains Spain’s largest collection of Roman ruins. Scattered throughout the town are the remains of a 6,000 seat amphitheater, the longest of all existing Roman bridges, the Forum, Temple to Diana, Trajan’s Arch, Circus Maximus, an aqueduct, and more. We only had time for the aqueduct and it was seriously impressive. The arches are sprinkled with giant storks’ nests. This was not part of our itinerary but was worth the stop. MĂ©rida is only a couple minutes off the motorway and we had no trouble parking in the neighborhood for 30 minutes while we wandered.

One more post coming soon about Seville and then I’ll be bombarding you all with pictures of glorious England once again!

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Spain Part III: Toledo

Spain Part II: Ăvila

Ávila is a tiny town only an hour or so from Madrid that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Famous for its towering medieval stone walls, 12th century cathedral, and ties to St. Teresa of Ávila, this was a wonderful place to stay for a night. After massive amounts of walking and exploring in Madrid, I was immediately charmed by the size of the city and solitude of the surrounding countryside.

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View from the walls
Cathedral in the distance

Murallas

Gorgeous countryside
Countryside on the way to Ávila

Even though our visit corresponded with one of the busiest times of the year, the feast day of St. Teresa, I would hardly describe the place as crowded. St. Teresa is one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church and she lived much of her life here. We visited her convent, church, and a mini-museum containing her diary, many original writings, the rosary and crucifix that she carried everywhere, and one of her fingers. We also saw her gigantic statue that is brought out on a “float” for processions. These are very common in Spain and they are carried through the streets during festivals and celebrations and then displayed for a few weeks before being tucked safely away. We saw them in each of the cities we visited, and I have to say they’re quite impressive and such a fun tradition. The one in Ávila was covered in flowers.

A visit to Ávila isn’t complete without touring the old city walls, or murallas. They date from the 12th century and are remarkably well preserved, standing atop old Muslim battlements. Stones dating to Roman times were also reused in the construction of the murallas, so the massive fortress is a kind of testament to the multiple civilizations that have occupied this hilltop. We climbed up and walked the perimeter of the city and I absolutely loved the views! Mountains in the far distance, little cottages and farms, and the red roofs of the town.

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Walking on the walls

We spent about 24 hours in Ávila and then drove south to Toledo. Exploring smaller towns and off-the-beaten-track areas has quickly become my favorite way to travel! If you’re spending a few days in Madrid, I highly recommend adding a day to see Ávila or Toledo so you can experience Spanish life outside the capitol.

BasĂ­lica de San Vicente
Basilica de San Vicente

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Spain Part II: Ăvila

Quick Trip to Amsterdam

We spent less than 36 hours in Amsterdam and that was all it took for me to fall in love. Such an underrated city!! We didn’t visit the Red Light District nor did we smoke any weed, so let’s just get that out of the way. But while we’re on the topic, why do we only talk about Amsterdam’s Red Light District? That’s like ignoring the Rocky Mountains and judging the merits of Colorado solely on it’s marijuana laws. Crazy.

There is so much more to Amsterdam! I left feeling like I had found my peeps and that I would love to live there. Maybe my subconscious was picking up faint similarities between locals in Amsterdam and the Dutch back home in West Michigan. Entirely possible. I have no idea. Everyone was very friendly, English was widely spoken (without an ounce of resentment), and we never really found ourselves in a crowd of tourists. It felt very residential and neighborhoody, very relaxed. There is a casual atmosphere, but you also pick up on an entrepreneurial vibe. Streets are full of quirky independent shops, and the owners/makers staffing the store are the farthest thing from haughty. The women were stylish yet undoubtedly comfortable, and I envied them as I silently cursed my skinny jeans. Another bonus: with so many canals and houseboats, it seems like the majority of residents have waterfront property.

Connor and I spent a great afternoon wandering the old Jordaan neighborhood, popping in and out of little shops, visiting the cheese museum, and eating far too many delicious samples (truffle cheese omg). We sat outside on a canal patio at ‘t Smalle CafĂ© and later visited CafĂ© Gollum, two small places that we loved and wholeheartedly recommend. These “bruin cafĂ©s” or “brown cafĂ©s” are old, traditional, Dutch pubs named for the cozy wooden interiors. They’re the best places to go if you’re looking for a local crowd rather than other tourists. We walked by the beautiful Rijksmuseum, saw the IAmsterdam letters, and ordered a delicious takeout pizza before calling it a night.

Amsterdam
Exploring Amsterdam
t'Smalle Bruin Bar
‘t Smalle CafĂ©
Rijksmuseum
Rijksmuseum
I Amsterdam letters
E for Erin

The next day Connor had to work so I spent the morning visiting Rembrandt’s former home and studio, now the Rembrandthuis Museum. Seriously cool. Rembrandt lived and worked in this building from 1639-1656 and you can tour all the rooms, including his multiple studios. I knew very little about the famous painter, and had no idea he was known during his lifetime for his etchings rather than his paintings. Today it’s the opposite, and this museum has the largest collection of his etchings in the world. I watched a few demonstrations and learned about etching, which was used as a kind of print making process in the 17th century. They also had a really cool demonstration on pigments and the process of making oil paint during Rembrandt’s time. The museum has a sizable room devoted to Rembrandt’s collection: skulls, Greek and Roman busts, turtle shells, seashells, bones, feathers, coins, pottery, giant books, statues, weapons. Super cool. However, if you want to see more of his paintings you’re better off visiting the Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt's Collection
Part of Rembrandt’s collection
Shelves in Rembrandt's House
Shelves in Rembrandthuis
Rembrandt's Large Studio
Rembrandt’s painting studio

That afternoon I wandered around the city checking out more shops and enjoying the canals before heading to the airport around dinner time.

Amsterdam iPhone
Beautiful buildings
Amsterdam
Sitting on the canal watching the boats go by
Amsterdam iPhone
Super cute shops
Amsterdam
Canals!

Not too shabby for only a day and a half! Things we pointedly skipped that we didn’t regret: big museums, canal cruise (since we did that in Bruges), walking tour (we didn’t want to go to the Red Light District), Dutch food (not that different from Belgium). If we had more time we would have rented bikes and seen more of the neighborhoods outside the central canal ring. Go to Amsterdam! Great place to spend a weekend!

 

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Quick Trip to Amsterdam

1 Day in York

When you close your eyes and picture England, what pops into your head?

London and it’s dazzling buildings along the Thames…

Rolling green fields with sheep as far as the eye can see…

Rain, fog, and bowler hats…

Tiny villages of stone…

Or how about York? Beautiful, quaint, Medieval York is the England I envisioned before setting foot on the island. An easy, unforced combination of past and present, clean and well-kept despite its ancient buildings, very traditional yet not outdated. In all of these things York reminded me a bit of Bruges, Belgium. Unlike Bruges, however, York is not a canal city, and its ancient city walls are still standing.

York iPhone

When I hear “quintessential English” I think of York: narrow winding streets, leaning Tudor buildings with tiny doors, Gothic churches, and loads of tea shops.

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hats hats hats.

And, ladies in hats! There was a wedding at York Minster Cathedral and I couldn’t help creeping and taking pictures. Technically they’re called “fascinators.” And they certainly are fascinating. Check out the one with the giant feather.

Also, isn’t this building gorgeous!? The grandness of these ancient churches and the detailed architecture stuns me every time. York Minster is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Europe and the second most important church in England. I’m not entirely clear on the hierarchy/structure of the Anglican church, but I know Canterbury (and the Archbishop of Canterbury) is #1 and the primate of York is #2. There has been a church on this site since 627 and the crypt still contains elements from this original church, old Roman foundations, and 11th century Norman elements. The existing church was built between 1220 and 1480. We stuck our heads inside but didn’t pay for full access. The exterior seemed to be the real show anyways.

I recommend visiting York during the week or an off-season weekend. Definitely don’t visit on a bank holiday weekend as we did. Narrow streets are even narrower with scads of slow moving tourists. Penny didn’t do as well on this leg of the adventure since there were so many people and dogs, and she prevented us from going inside a tea shop to relax. We sat on the river and had a pint hoping she would chill out away from the crowds, but instead, she made friends with a little toddler from Spain. Thank heavens this little boy liked her because she kept jumping up and putting her paws on his shoulders and giving him kisses. Besos. Cutest thing ever, but a bit nerve wracking since he would walk up behind us and Penny would be all over him before I knew what was happening.

That evening we stayed in Leeds and had a fabulous time chatting with our Airbnb hosts. We came away with great recommendations for walking in the Yorkshire Dales. They even made us a wonderful breakfast the next morning to prepare us for a long day of hiking (completely unexpected). Thanks to their tips, we had a fabulous 8 mile hike.

Check back tomorrow for pics of the Dales! I know I said I’d do that today. I lied. Sorry. Turns out I had more to say about York than I thought.

1 Day in York

A Day in Chipping Campden – Cotswolds

Somehow it’s June 14. Has it really been more than a month since we’ve chatted? I have a huge backlog of photos and adventures to sort through, the Queen is 90 years old, a heatwave of 70 degree temperatures hit the island catching everyone off guard (pun very much intended), and my garden has exploded in leafiness slugs be damned.

A few weeks ago, our morning chauffeur duties complete, Penny and I hopped in the Minnow and drove an hour south to explore Chipping Campden, a little village in the Cotswolds.

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Can't get enough of the wisteria!

Spring is such a lovely season in England – flowers just explode and I’m officially in love with all the wisteria.

“Chipping” derives from the old English word for market or marketplace, and this particular village was a major wool trading center in the Middle Ages. Its high street has buildings from the 14th century and quaint thatched roofs dot the narrow twisty lanes heading off the main road. Houses in the Cotswolds are all made of the same local limestone that yellows with age, and strict building regulations ensure that these villages retain their old-world charm and traditional appearance. Chipping Campden is one of the northernmost towns in the Cotswolds AONB and thus relatively easy to access from Birmingham, and it’s also the start of the 102 mile Cotswolds Way, a walking path along the AONB’s northern border that ends in the city of Bath. My plan was to explore the village and then spend the day walking the trail.

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Are any of you familiar with the London Blue Plaques? Throughout the country, and mainly in London, blue plaques mark buildings where notable people have lived or worked. There’s even an app to help you stalk your favorite historical figures. We’ve had a lot of fun discovering these plaques and I stumbled on one in Chipping Campden. The author Graham Greene spent a couple years in the cutest thatched cottage just outside of town, close to the start of the Cotswolds Way. He lived here from 1931-1933.

Graham Greene's House from 1931-1933

Graham Greene's House from 1931-1933

I met a few ladies from Canada walking the Cotswolds Way, but other than that, my chosen walking route was completely deserted. Lots of overly protective mamma sheep, however.

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On the way home I passed a giant castle looking building and pulled in to see what it was all about.

Coughton Court

Little church on the grounds of Coughton Court

Coughton Court has been the Throckmorton family home since the early 1400s. The Tudor-style country house is now owned by the National Trust, but still inhabited by the family. The grounds cover 25 acres and there’s a gorgeous garden in the back and an ancient chapel next to the main building. The Throckmortons were one of the families that remained Catholic after the Reformation, contributing their house and money to resistance efforts and to Catholic emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries. The house is open to visitors, but the entrance fee and Penny’s fear of being abandoned in a car until the end of time were reason enough to admire the gigantic home from the outside only.

A Day in Chipping Campden – Cotswolds

Budapest Trip Report: 3 Day City Break

Parliament from Fisherman's Bastion

Our first adventure to Eastern Europe! We landed in Budapest, Hungary on Thursday, April 14 just before midnight and spent the next 3 days exploring Buda, Pest, and Óbuda, the three cities that united to form Budapest, capital of Hungary. Budapest has quite the list of World Heritage Sites and I think we actually made it to all of them, including riding the second-oldest metro line in the world.

We’re officially hooked on the free walking tours offered in many major European cities. They’re a great way to orient yourself in a new city and learn about your destination from a local. And, it’s a fabulous opportunity to snag some recommendations for off-the-beaten-track places. First thing Friday morning we joined one of Budapest’s walking tours which hit up most of the main landmarks and gave us an overview of the historical significance of each site. We also heard a bit about the impact of Communism in Budapest. Before this trip, I hadn’t realized that Hungary was fighting for independence through 1989.

Matthias Church
Matthias Church (gorgeous roof tiles!!)
In Buda’s Castle District, looking out over the Danube and Parliament on the Pest side
Fisherman’s Bastion
Buda Castle
Flowering Trees in Buda
Flowering trees everywhere – beautiful, but they sent my allergies into attack mode
View of the Castle District
Buda Castle and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge

Our first impression of the city was that certain areas were grittier than many of the polished places we’ve recently visited, thanks in part to the not so distant painful past. Bullet holes in buildings were common. I’m pretty sure our Airbnb in the Jewish District was at the center of some kind of traumatic siege. But, everything was much more affordable than Western Europe. 4 nights in this place cost similar to what we’ve paid for a single night in London. Warm weather + cheap beer/food/accommodation + gritty = college student/bachelor party/hipster heaven.

Narrow pedestrian only streets packed with bars, party people, and lots of neon and twinkling lights

“Ruin bars” in the Jewish District are popular among the 20-something set but we didn’t end up visiting any… even walking by them is a bit overwhelming. The 7th district of Budapest was left empty and abandoned in the 40s after thousands of its Jewish inhabitants were deported during WWII. The area fell into serious disarray and has only recently started to revitalize, thanks in part to the hipster/bohemian ruin bars that started popping up in abandoned buildings in the 90s. They started as laid-back “take back our city” drinking dens and have since grown into a major tourist attraction. The bars are giant and maze-like, many outdoor, packed with people. Furnished with mismatched, discarded furniture and decorated with all sorts of abandoned items from inflatable clowns to old cars to someone’s paper mache rabbit collection, these places embody the resourcefulness, grit, and party heart of Budapest.

Also, the people walking into these bars look like CHILDREN due to the very low drinking age in Europe.

We were more interested in trying Hungarian wine and so one night we went to a great wine bar that I would wholeheartedly recommend called Doblo. I tried a Tokaji white wine and Connor had a Cabernet Franc, both recommended by the staff, and both very good. Hungarian food isn’t much to speak of, but we did have a fantastic dinner at a modern Hungarian restaurant called Mak. Great spot if you want a nicer dinner out.

One completely new experience was visiting a thermal bath. There are a lot of these in Budapest, each with its own history and set of rules, and we decided to try the Szechenyi Baths since someone recommended it and they allow women and men in the pools at the same time. We hopped on the historical M1 metro which was so cute, though definitely old and loud, and crossed our fingers that the baths wouldn’t be a super weird experience.

 
It ended up being fine – Connor wore gym shorts and no one approached him brandishing the rule book and waving a loin cloth in his face so we chalked it up as a success.

The inside is massive and we had no idea what we were doing. The signs were all in Hungarian and the only thing we could decipher were the signs posting the temperature of each pool (in Celsius. I hate Celsius. You can’t do the conversion in your head so it just seems mean). They each have different mineral levels, and we swam in 5 or so of the pools, and they were definitely mineral-y but I didn’t come out cured of anything so I’m not so sure about that part of the experience. We tried the sauna and it was so hot my eyeballs started shriveling as soon as we shut the door.

This particular bath venue turns into a giant party with questionable activities in the evening, fueled by the on site bars and presumably the goodies in people’s backpacks. We had our own picnic up on a balcony that was labeled VIP (could this really have been the only English sign??). The weirdest thing about the whole place was that the outdoor pools were extremely warm and I felt like I couldn’t stay in for very long. Especially with the sun out. But it was very fun and relaxing and the Art Deco building was beautiful, and I would definitely do it again. Sorry, no pics of the inside since we locked up our belongings.

The area around the baths had quite a bit to see so we visited City Park, Heroes Square, Vajdahunyad Castle, and wrapped up the afternoon by walking down the UNESCO listed street AndrĂĄssy Ășt. The House of Terror is located on AndrĂĄssy and while we didn’t go inside, we stopped to read some of the signs posted on the street. The building was headquarters for the Nazis and then the Russians and used to imprison, torture, and interrogate victims. Today the building is a museum and a memorial to victims.

Vajdahunyad Castle
Market at Vajdahunyad Castle
Installation in Heroes’ Square
Millennium Monument in Heroes’ Square
Section of the Berlin Wall outside the House of Terror
House of Terror Museum

Our final day we went to mass at St. Stephen’s Basilica then walked to Margaret Island. There was a half-marathon that morning in the area. (How fun would it be to do a race in a foreign city? I bet it’s a great way to see a new place.) The island was an important religious center back in the Middle Ages and today it’s mainly a getaway from bustling city life. A Dominican church and convent are now in ruins and after paying a quick visit we had a picnic on the river bank.

Ruins on Margaret Island
Ruins on Margaret Island
Picnicing on Margaret Island
View of Pest from Margaret Island

Budapest has commuter boats that zigzag up and down the Danube so instead of walking all the way back to the center of Pest we hopped on one of these. They’re much cheaper than the boat tours and dinner cruises that are all over the place, and it was really fun seeing the city from the water. We actually ended up with a free ride because the guy working on the boat looked at me blankly, like I wasn’t even there, when I asked about buying tickets.

Margaret Bridge
Boating down the Danube! View of Margaret Bridge and Buda

Parliament
Parliament building. Modeled after London’s Parliament

We took the boat all the way south to a stop near Gellert Hill in Buda and then climbed the hill. At the top is the Freedom Statue, considered a symbol of the city, and old army barracks. The view was magnificent and worth the climb.

Liberty Statue on Gellért Hill
The Freedom Statue
View of Budapest from Gellert Hill

General Observances:

  • Budapest is gorgeous and the least crowded place we’ve visited. If you can avoid the party scene, it’s a fun trip. You just have to look a little harder for the gems.
  • There are markets everywhere and they seem to have the exact same booths at each market. Paprika is basically the same price everywhere.
  • Hungarian street food isn’t that bad.
  • I regret not trying PĂĄlinka, a fruit brandy famous in the area that I’m sure I would have hated.
  • Bring earplugs if you are staying in the Jewish District. We did and it saved us.
  • Most people under 40 speak English, but if you learn hello and thank you Hungarians will be so so thrilled. A little effort goes a long way.
  • Their currency is the Florint and while Euros are accepted most places, it’s better to use the local currency.
  • Sitting on the Danube at night looking at the lights is gorgeous.
  • My new favorite beverage is a Borsodi Friss Bodza. Only 1.5% ABV and comes in a variety of flavors including elderflower, grapefruit, lemon, orange… I only tried the first two and they were amazing.
  • Free entertainment tip: sit on the Danube where the Viking River Cruises park and watch their dinner entertainment. We watched some local dancers jump and twirl in unison and it was hilarious. Especially without hearing the music.
St. Stephen's Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica. You can see his mummified right hand inside the church, if that’s your thing
Budapest Trip Report: 3 Day City Break

5 Days in Barcelona

Two days before we left for Barcelona we discovered that our flight home was on Wednesday, not Tuesday as we had originally thought. Cue ridiculous surge of excitement! A bonus day! With 5 whole days at our disposal we decided to try to have a more relaxing trip and not cram in a million museums. I was fine with this since I could get my art fix by walking around and looking at architecture. I did hope to see the Picasso Museum, but if you don’t leave something for next time, there will never be a next time. Amiright?

I’ll be as brief as I can here, but 5 days in a FABULOUS city is a lot of material, especially at the pace we’ve set for ourselves. PS: if anyone has a Mac version of Photoshop they want to give me, I can shorten these posts up by doing some sizing/combining work on all the images. Just want to throw that out there.

We arrived late on Thursday, and had great luck catching the last train out of the airport into the city. This time I followed the signs instead of running like a fool in all the wrong directions. Barcelona’s public transport system is really great and we used it all week. Very affordable, too, if you buy the T-10 ticket from any of the machines in any of the metro stations. It’s a 10-ride that can be used by multiple people, priced under 10 euro.

Day 1: Friday was Good Friday and we had 9am tickets to Sagrada Familia, so we were up early and over to the basilica before the crowds. Definitely a good choice. By the time we left it was crawling with people and not as peaceful as when we arrived. Entry tickets are rather expensive, but after you’re inside you don’t care about that anymore. Also, the ticket sales are helping fund the construction of the basilica, and the city is very open about this being a community effort. Gaudi, the famous architect who died in 1926, ran out of money for the project so he went door to door in Barcelona begging for contributions. Usually I’m averse to church entrance fees, but paying to help build a church? I can get behind that. Especially if it’s as awesome as this one. Connor and I agreed this is one of the most stunning buildings we’ve ever seen. The detail is incredible and varied. One facade looks like a drippy sandcastle. Another is polished and bone-like. The inside is built to resemble a forest and the ceiling looks like palm fronds. All the light inside is natural, and Gaudi took great pains to ensure the interior was neither too bright nor too dark; he described each extreme as blinding. The doors and windows are magnificent, and the colors inside change as the light shifts through the stained glass. Don’t skip Sagrada Familia if you visit Barcelona.

Sagrada Familia  Sagrada Familia The Scourging at the Pillar Sagrada Familia Sagrada Familia

We went up into one of the towers (there will be 18 but only 8 are completed at the moment) which gave us a great view over the city and an up-close look at some of the basilica details. There’s a lift to take you up into the tower, but the way down is all you – lots of spiraling stairs. I tried to SnapChat this while walking and that was stupid.

 More spiral stairs

Our tickets included an audio guide and while nice to have, it was too simple for my taste. I ended up reading about the basilica quite a bit that evening and after arriving back in England. I would recommend skipping the provided audio guide, reading before you visit, and taking along a simple printed guide to orient your time there. I’m sure there are free podcast episodes somewhere too, but I didn’t look into it.

We also visited the crypt beneath the main basilica and a museum-like area that contains models, sketches, and items related to building the church. You can see into the workshops where artists and architects do their thing. I enjoyed this glimpse into artist life immensely. The crypt is accessed through a separate entrance, no tickets needed. Mass is held here until the basilica is completed.

Later, we made our way towards Las Ramblas, the main pedestrian drag into the city. We stopped at a few buildings designed by Gaudi and other Modernisme gems along the way. Modernisme architecture is really fascinating. So colorful and fun. The lines to enter these buildings were quite long, and after being inside all morning we were grateful for an excuse to skip out.

La Pedrera Casa BatllĂł Casa Amatller

Our goal for the evening was to catch a Good Friday procession. Holy Week in Spain, or Semana Santa, is full of festivities and I was so looking forward to this. Very different from anything back home. We had a rough idea of where processions were leaving from, but no idea what route they took and where we should go to see this happening. Then it started raining and I was miserable without a rain coat. We took shelter in the closest open building, the Cathedral, and went through the Holy Door. At this point it was around 6pm and we were exhausted from having only 5 or 6 hours of sleep the night before, so we decided to skip the parade situation. I was disappointed, but also had no idea where to go. I was envisioning some spectacle similar to Dia de los Muertos that would be tough to miss, but that was not the case.

Pictures of the Cathedral, Placa Reial, and an initial wander through Barri Gotic are up on Flickr. I am backing up my photos there and have little narrative comments on some of the pictures so I don’t forget anything. Everything is in chronological order. You’re welcome to have a browse if you like more pictures than words.

Day 2: Saturday was a long, busy, and very fun day. We started at Parc Ciutadella, built in the 1800s and the only green space in the city for many years. Fountains, little boating lakes, museums, walking paths, gardens, a zoo… lots to see. We packed a lunch and wandered for awhile.

Barcelona Fountain in Ciutadella Park

That afternoon we took a break at a restaurant outside Santa Maria del Mar, a 14th century Gothic church in the Ribera district. We checked out the church once it opened again in the late afternoon and explored the El Born area for awhile. Santa Maria del Mar is so unlike Sagrada Familia and gorgeous in a totally different way. Just massive, very Gothic, beautiful windows, but no superfluous detail.

In my Top 10 Most Beautiful Churches list Stained Glass in Santa Maria del Mar the beautiful Passeig del Born

Next we went to Mercado de la Boqueria, the huge, popular, main market off Las Ramblas, and very very crowded. We picked up some olives to snack on (soooo delicious!!) and I wanted to buy something from everyone. Spanish sausage, olives, tapas, wine, fruit, FISH, so much fish. The only thing stopping me was the crowds, honestly. Also the image of raw fish in my purse.

Then we went to the water!! Sunshine!!! We had our first successful barter experience of the trip when Connor decided he wanted sunglasses from one of the sidewalk dudes. He mimed that he needed some extra large glasses, so they would fit his head. (“Cabeza grande,” I offered. Their Spanish was worse than ours.) Not the most successful conversation. We moved on and at the next sunglasses dude, we offered half what the first guy was charging and Connor walked away with some slick new shades.

Made it to the beach! Impressive sandcastles! There's fire on the top!

Barcelona has great shopping… many small places selling handmade, really unique, quality items. I’m not exactly a shopper, but I had quite the list of places that I wouldn’t mind popping into if we happened by, including an ancient candle shop, La Manual Alpargatera (traditional espadrilles), and a beautiful shop selling Spanish masks made on site. The masks were disappointingly far outside my price range, but the espadrilles were not! You pick a number, tell them your size and color when your number is called, and off you go. While I waited I watched a lady stitching up a new pair in the roped-off workshop.

Tada! Legendary La Manual Alpargatera!

Later on, we had tapas and awesome Spanish wine at Zona d’Ombra (very very good! one of the best places for local wine in the city), then we went to a flamenco show at Los Tarantos in Placa Reial. Shows were only 30 minutes and more affordable than the fancy theatres. While it caters to tourists, it’s definitely a good option if you want espadrilles AND flamenco but don’t want to devote your whole evening to dinner and a show. Such a fun way to experience this piece of Spanish culture!

Goodies at Zona d'Ombra Flamenco!

Day 3: Sunday we checked out Montjuic, a hilly area south of the city where the Catalonian history museum, Font Magica, and Montjuic Castle are located. There are great walking and biking trails, beautiful gardens, some restaurants and cafes, and quite a bit we didn’t have time to see. The fountains were beautiful and we had another picnic in one of the gardens. The Volta Catalunya cycling race took place in Montjuic that day and we watched and cheered for the cyclists for awhile. I’ve never seen a live bike race and it was very exciting!

Despite my weak protestations, we took the funicular down the hill because we were tired. It’s just a stupid gondola and way too expensive. 10 euro or something each for a 5 minute gondola ride. Skip this for sure.

Barcelona  Racers! MontjuĂŻc Castle

We walked from Montjuic back towards the beach for an hour’s rest, and then went to Easter mass at the cathedral. It wasn’t swimming weather by any means, but sitting on the sand and staring at the water was so refreshing and glorious. Evidently we weren’t the only people to flee gloomy Britain during the Easter holiday. We saw many British families sleeping on the beach, kiddos playing in the water even though it was freezing, and all of us had sunburns by the end of the long weekend.

Barceloneta BeachEaster Mass at the Cathedral

Day 4: Monday was wine tour day! Catalonia produces the vast majority of the world’s cava (sparkling wine, fermented in the bottle like champagne) and Sant Sadurni d’Anoia is the region just outside Barcelona that churns out more cava than anywhere else. Neither Connor nor I had ever visited a vineyard and we had a great time on this excursion. Freixenet is the major producer in the area, and they have a combined train ticket/winery tour deal that is really great value. At the train station, you buy a “Freixetren” ticket and off you go. Tours need to be reserved via email in advance but you buy the combined ticket in person at the train station on the day of. (Ignore my usage of vineyard/winery/producer/whatever. I realize they are all different and no, I don’t really care.)

As it happens, champagne and cava are made exactly the same way, and all the rules apply about only being allowed to label yourself as cava/champagne if you are using the specific grapes that grow in that specific region. After fermentation, the wine is bottled and a secondary fermentation takes place in order to carbonate the wine (like beer! who knew?!) and eventually they remove the sediment by reopening the bottles. Crazy! There’s a whole process of rotating and tipping the bottles upside down over the course of months to get all the sediment to settle in the right place, and then they freeze the neck of the bottle (the reason for the bottle’s unique shape), pop open the cork, shoot out the ice cube with the sediment trapped inside, and then re-cork the bottle. Sorry if you already knew this. I did not. Super fascinating, and the tasting at the end was delicious.

Freixenet Cava Tour Freixenet Cava Tour Freixenet Cava Tour

Freixenet has something like 15-20km of tunnels, and 3 or 4 different floors or levels all underground. It was a total maze and so gigantic. Our tour guide had to go find a few other girls who had wandered off. Very easy to get lost.

We decided to turn the day into tasting day, so we also visited Mikkeller Bar Barcelona and tried some of the famous Danish gypsy brewer’s incredible beers. This was way out of our way and totally worth it. We also visited BlackLab Brewpub back down in Barceloneta area near the water. Also a great place with outdoor seating. We went out for tapas that evening to hold us over until a later dinner, and we walked through Parc Ciutedella again and watched the sunset. DISCLAIMER: Tasting your way around breweries in Europe is a lot easier than in the States. Everyone offers pints and half pints, and many breweries offer 1/3 pints. Some offer flights of even smaller glasses. The majority of places we’ve been to simply cut the price of a pint in half or thirds, so you don’t lose out by buying the smaller glass, either. So there you have it. We were by no means drunk the whole time. I wish places back home would offer 1/3 pints. Perfect for someone like me.

Day 5: By Tuesday we had walked quite a bit and we just wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather. A market sets up not far from the Barceloneta beach so we planned to buy some food there and spend a few hours relaxing near the water. First we stopped to check out the Hospital de la Santa Creu which was pretty close to our Airbnb – a bit outside the main part of the city. Beautiful Modernisme building! We walked by Sagrada Familia again for a last look, braved the crowds on Las Ramblas, and made it to the water.

A final look at Sagrada Familia

One thing about Barceloneta beach: every minute, no exaggeration, someone walks by you trying to sell something. Under normal circumstances, this would drive me up the wall, but I think traveling is teaching me to be more patient and less irritated in certain situations. Also, I wanted one of the beach blankets. I had been eyeing them all week. The first day at the beach, I only had 3 euro in coin. You can’t barter and then hand them a 20 and ask for change. Not worth the trouble. We tried various ways to barter down to 3 euro, and after an hour we knew it wasn’t going to happen. The next day we tried again. Only this time, all the guys recognized us as the couple who only had 3 euro. They started avoiding us. A few had a sense of humor and kept coming back. After yelling “solo tengo tres euro” countless times I realized that very few of them actually knew Spanish. The ones who did weren’t that desperate to part with their wares.

We tried again the next day, and Connor held up 3 fingers to the first guy who approached us and said “tres” and the man thought we wanted 3 blankets. He was thrilled. When he realized solo tengo tres euro, he laughed in our faces. “Where are you from?” “Chicago.” “I see. I’m from Pakistan. Chicago must be very poor country.” Wah Wah.

He came back a few times but I just wasn’t going to pay 20 euro for one of those things. We eventually settled on 10, but I sort of feel bad… he has to make his money somehow. Also, I was so focused on the fun of bartering that I ended up buying a white beach blanket. What is wrong with me? What am I going to do with a white beach blanket? Connor thinks we’re going to have all these lovely picnics on the lovely new blanket that will cease to be lovely the first time it hits the slug infested grass. Ugh.

Other things we could have purchased: mojitos of a very vivid green not found in nature, tattoos, massages, beer… The people selling drinks were the worst. They were walking around with half empty bottles of booze that were all different shades of brown that they would mix into the unusual green mojitos. They do that trick where they somehow manage to force one in your hand.

Him: Five
Me: Five what? No, I don’t want this.
Him: OK special price. Four.
Me: No.
Him: OK special price for you. Two for eight.
Me: That’s the same as four. I don’t want one.
Him: OK fine. Two for seven.
Me: NO!
Him: OK fine. Special price. Only for you. Two for six.

I mean I was about to just dump out the drink or tell him I was pregnant. He was actually rather mad that I didn’t want his drink.

Another fun beach story: two super jacked bro-like dudes were sitting behind us all super handsy with each other, and really enjoying having their shirts off at the beach. I positioned Connor so he wouldn’t have his beach time ruined by PDA, but he eventually noticed. Maybe half an hour after we arrive I hear one guy say, “So… you travel a lot for work?” Answer: “Well, I recently moved into a different role and I’m traveling more than normal, but no, not really.”

How very fascinating! They didn’t even know each other!! Pleasantries continued to be exchanged for quite some time and I was just amazed. Am I missing something? I lean more towards the Stranger Danger end of the spectrum, but apparently some people are more Stranger = Opportunity for PDA on the Very Public Beach.

So anyways. Sorry for that. After a few hours fighting off the drink guys we wandered through the Gothic Quarter again and relaxed at a cafe, checked out a few more shops and just enjoyed some favorite spots before packing up that night.

Casa Almirall

Such a fun trip! The city combines modern conveniences like great public trans and longer opening hours (two of our gripes about Italy), has all the great food and bev that you hope for on vacation, great places to hike, a waterfront, really friendly locals, fabulous markets, colorful and accessible cultural events, and many many day trips to choose from. If we make it back, we’ll add a museum or two to the itinerary and maybe a trip to Parc Guell, designed by Gaudi, or a day trip up the coast to a small town. Scooter rental! We almost did this, but sort of ran out of time to make it work. While locals speak Catalan, they know Spanish and were really friendly about switching to English when our rudimentary skills ran out. They didn’t mind letting me practice though, which I appreciated. Now it’s time to cram our brains with Budapest, and a week later, Bruges. Wish us luck!

 Port of Barcelona

5 Days in Barcelona