Spain Part II: Ávila

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.

Basílica de San Vicente
Basilica de San Vicente

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Spain Part II: Ávila

Climbing Kinder Scout from Edale

We overdid it a bit last week. Too much adventure. Too little rest. Not enough healthy food. And when I say “we” I mean me and Penny. Connor escaped unscathed.

A week ago Saturday we climbed (what we believe was) Kinder Scout, one of the highest peaks in the Peak District. Monday we left for Amsterdam. Flew back late Tuesday night. Picked up Penny from her doggie hotel on Wednesday morning. She immediately started barfing. I cleaned up dog puke all day. Friday we left Paris and hoped our dog would be alive when we returned. Great weekend in Paris – biking and walking all over the place and wearing ourselves out. Sunday night I felt a bit queasy – hot sun, too much bread and cheese, 40,000 steps in one day, not enough sleep. No surprise. Monday we woke up at the crack for our flight and I was not. well. I collapsed on the couch with the flu and have been here ever since, binge watching Netflix. Penny and I are both on the BRAT diet.

I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. Endurance is not my strong point. I do things quickly and intensely and need ample recovery time. My adrenaline reserve was depleted before we even left for Amsterdam and my body just can’t handle it. Lesson learned. Also, many happy returns to the person who gave me the flu. Bastard.

So while Penny and I continue our pity party and finish whatever season of New Girl we’ve made it to, here are some pictures of Kinder Scout in the Peaks. Stay tuned next week for fun bits and bobs about Amsterdam and Paris.

Kinder Scout was gorgeous! The hike was incredible and the day was perfect, one of the warmest we’ve had yet. I could sit and look at the sprawling views all day. Purple heather was everywhere. Bliss.

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iPhone kinder scout hike

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Climbing Kinder Scout from Edale

Doyles Take England: Bath and Stratford-Upon-Avon

After leaving the Cotswolds, we made a quick stop in Bath to stretch our legs, have lunch, and check out the ancient city. We barely scratched the surface and I hope we make it back to Bath sometime soon. The highlight of this visit was simply enjoying the gorgeous 18th century Georgian architecture, the Bath Abbey, and the river. We had another gorgeous day so we were able to wander the little streets without needing to worry about ducking inside.

Next time, I would love to tour the old Roman bathhouse – the best preserved in the world – and have tea at the Pump Room. Also, Jane Austen lived in the city for a few years and as her biggest fan, it would be irresponsible not to visit some of her old stomping grounds and the Jane Austen Centre!

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The Bath Abbey and Park
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Roman Baths on the left
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The River Avon, St. Michael’s Steeple, Pulteney Bridge, and the Guildhall Dome
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Picnic lunch under this tree
Dave and Penny

From Bath, we continued south to the county of Devon and the little town, Lynton, that would be our base for the next three nights. However, I’m skipping ahead to the 4th leg of our trip since three days in Devon warrants a separate post. After Devon, we stopped in Shakespeare’s hometown for dinner and a play before continuing on to Birmingham. Stratford-Upon-Avon is such a cute town and the Royal Shakespeare Company is absolutely phenomenal. Connor and I saw a play in Stratford last autumn, and we were anxious to see this year’s production of Hamlet that had received glowing reviews.

If you are in England and you haven’t had a chance to see this show, do yourself a favor and GO BUY TICKETS! It is such a fresh and modern take on the classic, and so much more enjoyable than you can even imagine. Graffiti, African drums, a helicopter entrance… this is FUN Shakespeare! A quick glance around the theatre proves this better than any glowing review — students pack the upper levels, all on the edge of their seats, no one is texting or goofing around. I’m jealous that these kids are growing up in an environment that makes Shakespeare so fun and accessible. The lines aren’t changed, by the way. You still need to pay attention so you don’t miss anything. Finally, I can’t say enough about Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet… he was exceptional. Energetic, charismatic, and convincing. Just fabulous. I don’t envy the next Hamlet who has to follow Essiedu’s performance.

Technically, you’re not supposed to take pictures, but here you go.

Seeing Hamlet at RSC in Stratford Upon Avon

Before the play, we took a boat ride down the River Avon – a nice way to escape the crowds.

Seeing Hamlet at RSC in Stratford Upon Avon

Check back tomorrow for our hiking adventures in Devon!

Doyles Take England: Bath and Stratford-Upon-Avon

Walking in the Yorkshire Dales

The Yorkshire Dales National Park is a popular walking destination in England made up of river valleys and hills. A “dale” is a valley, a word derived from old Nordic and Germanic languages. Dales throughout the county of Yorkshire are named after their corresponding river: Swaledale, Wharfedale, Waldendale, Raydale, Washburndale, etc. After our fabulous breakfast in Leeds, we drove to tiny Kettlewell and tackled the Great Whernside walking route, heading for the rocky summit of Wharfedale. Gorgeous day!!

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Scale is so difficult to convey in photos. That rock was large enough for us to stretch out and have a picnic lunch away from the soggy mossy hill we were climbing.

Sidebar on hiking lunches: we need a new go-to hiking lunch. Last winter in Italy, we developed a habit of buying baguettes and pre-sliced salami for quick and cheap sustenance. This works decently well in countries known for their salami. This doesn’t work so well if you buy the cheapest meat full of chemicals and baddies in random places like Yorkshire. It basically ruins your insides. I won’t go into details. Option #2, PB&Js, had a brief comeback a couple weeks ago when we visited the south of England with Connor’s parents. Something about the sog factor and lack of actual nutrients booted this out of the rotation. I’m all ears if anyone has any suggestions. I’ll give you a blue ribbon if it doesn’t involve bread or sugar.

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Penny has proved to be an excellent little traveler. She sleeps most of the day when we’re at home, but is always up for an adventure as long as it doesn’t involve swimming. She seems to be happy as long as she’s with us. We didn’t know what to expect when we put her in a backpack the first time, but she doesn’t seem to mind it. In fact, when she sees us packing up a bag for a day trip she knows a walk is coming and starts jumping all over the place. She does her fair share of walking on these hikes, but we try to carry her when the terrain is muddy or covered in sheep shit. Both are fairly common. Adders (European vipers) are a concern in many parts of England, and ticks are rampant, so sometimes it’s just safer to keep her in the bag.

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As usual, we saw plenty of sheep. The lambs are so adorbs.

That evening we pitched our tent and then drove back to the town of Harrogate to pick up some dinner. Even though I was a bit embarrassed to be seen with a pizza box, the other campers in the field didn’t seem all that committed to traditional, rugged camping techniques either. Their tents were the size of small houses with giant inflatable mattresses inside. Temporary privacy screens walled off sections of claimed space (can’t help but wonder if a little Oklahoma Land Rush went down in these parts). Wine glasses were clearly visible on tables. And then, our tiny little clown car rumbles through the scene. I can just see this through their eyes. Out pops a limping man, an odd girl in a baseball hat and sweatshirt (simply not a thing in England), and a tiny dog wearing a puffy winter coat. These rubes pitch their Tesco children’s tent and then drive off, only to return an hour and a half later with a pizza box and bag full of beer. The next morning, they’re gone before anyone else is awake.

Walking in the Yorkshire Dales

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 Camping Attempt in the Yorkshire Dales

For those of you in the States, imagine for a moment what you would do if your trusty one-stop-shop disappeared off the face of the earth. No more Target or Meijer, not even Walmart. You need to source all your possessions from specialty, expensive boutiques that may not have a website or a brick and mortar in your city. You have no idea how to even find these places to overpay for pillows, cookie sheets, a rain coat, and other superfluous essential items. Your neighbors don’t speak English so you can’t ask them for suggestions. You can either shop at the Dollar Store or Aldi. You hold your breath as you walk through the doors and hope that their pathetic bins of inventory 1) are actually full enough that you don’t have to compromise your dignity and dumpster dive to reach the items and 2) contain something of use.

In this alternate universe, the brilliant idea to go camping over a bank holiday becomes extremely complicated. Where the hell are you going to find an affordable tent of decent quality that won’t leak in the very likely event it rains? Yes, #firstworldproblems. Boo hoo, you have spend an entire day driving around your city looking for a tent or hoping Amazon UK learned something overnight from the States (definitely not).

I haven’t fully processed my thoughts on American vs British consumer habits, and I haven’t decided if I think Americans are spoiled, fortunate, or just doomed to a life of detached consumption and rampant materialism. (The latter is easily noticeable, but it also seems that Americans have more hobbies than the British, and hobbies = gear/supplies/stuff. If the British had more hobbies maybe they would spend less time sitting around drinking in dreary old pubs.)

Anyway, I admit that I’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of convenience and efficiency in my shopping habits. Because Target. Singlehandedly making my life easier since 2005. Dear Target, if you came to Britain, you would blow everyone’s mind and put a lot of small shops out of business.

Alas, I eventually found an affordable tent. The “rain fly” was smaller than a pair of my underpants. I also found sleeping bags, made of the most synthetic of synthetic materials. I’m pretty sure all this gear was intended for backyard sleepovers. The kind where the kids all end up in the house so poor quality gear is a non-issue.

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SO, what did we do with our sub-par gear?! We drove a few hours north to Yorkshire, spent a day in York, stayed overnight at an Airbnb in Leeds, walked the Dales the next day, camped that night, and drove back to Birmingham the following day. Our tent was about 1/8 the size of all the other tents in this field. No joke. We also forgot about the whole food thing so we drove 30 minutes into a town and ordered a pizza. And it was delicious.

Additionally:

  • It didn’t rain.
  • We were freezing cold.
  • Penny was initially scared of the tent.
  • There are cows on the other side of that wall in the above picture.
  • Connor thought he twisted his ankle at the end of the day’s hike.
  • Penny scratched my eyeball in the tent and I spent the drive home thinking I would have to go to the emergency room and wear an eye patch.
  • Both were false alarms.

Check back tomorrow for some pictures of Medieval York and the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales!

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A Camping Attempt in the Yorkshire Dales

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

Re-falling in love with hiking

One of my favorite things about living in England is our proximity to National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Beauty (AONBs) with their myriad of opportunities for hiking, biking, and exploring. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some city life, fancy clothes, and foodie nights on the town, but those things tend to drain me of energy, while hiking and fresh air rejuvenate every particle of my soul. It’s been years since I’ve been able to jump in the car and within minutes leave behind chaos and turn the corner into magnificently deserted hills, farms, and wide open spaces.

The UK boasts 15 National Parks and 46 AONBs. We’ve visited a handful, but I’d like to get serious and visit as many as possible. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist going back to the same tried and true places knowing how fabulous they are, but we have yet to be disappointed by any of these wilderness wonderlands. 2 weeks ago we visited Cannock Chase AONB for the second time and last Saturday we drove to Snowdonia National Park in Wales. Snowdonia is absolutely stunning and reminded me a lot of Colorado (one of my favorite states). Cannock Chase is only an hour from our house, and a nice place for a quintessential English Sunday walk. Not sure we should really label it hiking.

Snowdonia, Wales – Fisherman’s Loop Hike out of Beddgelert

Snowdonia Hike

Snowdonia Hike

Snowdonia Hike

Snowdonia Hike

Snowdonia Hike

Snowdonia Hike

Baby snake, lamb and mom, crazyyyy mountain goat things. Check out those horns!
Baby snake, lamb and mom, crazyyyy mountain goat things. Check out those horns!

Those wild mountain goats or whatever they are had no problem continuing their descent and approaching us. We booked it out of there since those horns are at least twice the size of Penny. Super cool though! We ended the hike with a pint outside at a local pub, full of other hikers and exhausted dogs.

Cannock Chase AONB – Hike out of Rugeley

We didn’t bring our camera to Cannock so we only have a few blurry photos on our phones. Beautiful pine forests, a few small ponds, and easy to follow trails.

Re-falling in love with hiking

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 Batlló 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! Montjuïc 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

It’s Lambing Season in England!

Baby lambs are invading the countryside and I couldn’t be more thrilled!! Over the weekend, we drove an hour or so west of Birmingham to the Shropshire Hills, and we must have seen thousands of tiny lambs along the way. They are so adorable – lots of sleeping and frolicking. Every once in a while we would spot an all-black little dude and those were by far the cutest.

I don’t know which are more numerous right now: lambs or daffodils. I’ve never seen so many daffodil varieties. They line the roads and driveways, pop up in the middle of fields and lawns in pretty significant numbers, and seem to have a mind of their own. Tulips are not a thing here, that’s for sure. We passed rolling fields of yellow wildflowers, too… Birmingham is officially the grimmest place on earth, and I’m so glad we can get in the car when it’s raining and just drive until we find some sunshine. The pictures of flowers taken from inside a moving car did not turn out. Can’t imagine why. But below are a few snaps of the lambs.

Blurry, but gives you an idea of the size difference!
Running and jumping!

Connor kindly pulled the car over a couple times so we could watch the lambs. There’s a brief video on Instagram of tail wagging and little guys running. The pictures aren’t the greatest because I was too busy watching them, but you get the idea.

We had a pint in Church Stretton (how’s that for a name), a cute town with a seriously cool antique shop. We didn’t hike the hills because Penny has blisters from too much pavement play during her spring break stay at the doggie hotel. Ridiculous.

Pathetic. But such a good dog. She didn’t even care that I was doing this to her.

On the way home, we stopped at a farm store to buy some fresh eggs. We also met the mamas. I’m pretty sure they were irritated that we were the new owners of their eggs. Also, I think the chickens were the same size as Penny.
 

Hills and some daffodils in the background!

I’m busting my butt to sift through all our Barcelona pictures and then I’ll have some FUN IN THE SUN pics to show you! How many times am I going to proclaim that I’ve found my “new favorite city?” I can’t promise you that this will be the last, but Barcelona was fab fab fab and it’s my new fave. A bit of Chicago meets LA meets Gothic Medieval Europe with a party vibe, crazy arts scene, and a fierce Catalonian pride complete with a Spanish/Portuguese/French/Italian hybrid language. But I spoke Spanish and that was perfectly fine. As usual, I miss it already.

It’s Lambing Season in England!