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!”

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Claire Came to Visit!

Spain Roadtrip Part I: Madrid

Hola Amigos!

Ready for a really tardy party full of Spain pictures?! I’m sorry for my longer than usual absence. I can give you a whole list of excuses, but honestly, blogging hasn’t been flowing for me over the last couple months. My guilt caught up with me however, and here I am. Since my last post, we visited Oxford, hiked a stunning section of the Brecon Beacons in Southern Wales, spent more than a week in Spain with my parents, and I finally visited Chatsworth House with Connor’s cousin Elaine. I also hiked the Malvern Hills for a second time and found myself floating above the clouds. It was surreal. Instagram is the best place to keep up with these mini day/weekend adventures, especially Instagram Stories, so if you don’t follow me over there, hop to it!

Now for Madrid!

Streets

Connor and I spent a weekend in Madrid before my parents arrived. The city is very walkable and we had no trouble covering the central area in two days. We visited the Royal Palace on Saturday morning and absolutely loved it. The interior is stunning, but no photos are allowed beyond the entrance hall, so I have little to show for our time wandering the rooms. I tend to avoid historical interiors since they’re so often full of looping, recorded narratives and creepy manikins staged for “a day in the life.” Thankfully, this was not the situation at the Royal Palace. The rooms were beautiful and ornate, the number of chandeliers alone was incredible (maybe 100??), and now I feel the need to tour Buckingham Palace ASAP.

Palacio Real

Palacio Real

The Palace hosts art exhibitions from time to time and we caught the last day of a Caravaggio & Bernini exhibit. We also loved the armory (equestrian items were fabulous), room full of Stradivarius instruments, mini exhibits on Christopher Columbus/Ferdinand/Isabella.

We ate tapas, found a Spanish craft beer bar, visited a market, walked through El Retiro Park, visited the main cathedral, did a drive-by of the Prado, saw Plaza Mayor, and felt like we covered a good bit of ground. Unfortunately, because I’ve allowed this much time to pass since our trip, I don’t remember the names of the bars/restaurants/markets. Nothing was absolutely out of this world, though. Madrid was nice, but we both agree we would rather return to Barcelona and its ubiquitous olive stands. We didn’t see a single olive stand in Madrid! Only inside the markets where olives were 1 euro a piece. Crazy.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor
Palacio de Cristal
Palacio de Cristal in el Retiro Park. Built in 1887.
Fun Trees!!
Fun bubble trees
Catedral de la Almudena
The Cathedral. Santa María la Real de La Almudena

Sunday morning, my parents miraculously arrived at our Airbnb to pick us up. They rented a car, had Google Map directions printed out, and promptly got lost. After pulling up at various bus stops and trying to ask for directions (super fun when you don’t speak the language), they somehow ended up on the right street and Connor flagged them down. We spent the rest of the week in Avila, Toledo, and Seville (more on those in future posts), returning to Madrid on Saturday night so Connor could fly back to Birmingham in time for work on Monday. I stayed with my parents in Madrid until Tuesday morning and checked a few more things off the Madrid must-do list.

We visited the Prado Museum, one of the world’s largest art galleries with a great collection of European. As you would expect, they have a significant number of items by Spanish artists like Velazquez, El Greco, El Bosco, and Goya. The museum is free for the last couple hours in the evenings, so we waited in line and did a quick tour of some of the museum’s famous masterpieces. Our visit was more rushed than I would normally plan, but two hours in a museum is plenty when you’ve been walking for most of the day. Any time a museum offers free entry, I think it’s worth waiting in the line and saving the admission cost. It eliminates the pressure to stay and see every single thing to get your money’s worth. The Prado definitely has their system down because once they opened the doors for the free evening session, we were inside within 10 minutes.

Prado Museum
Prado Museum Entrance

We also visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum which is free on Mondays. It’s one of the largest private art collections in the world and contains items from time periods and countries not covered in the Prado. We spent half a day here perusing the Impressionists, Renaissance painters, and others, skipping some of the weird modern art rooms. Both museums were fantastic, but if you only have the time/desire/patience to visit one, definitely read about their collections and pick the one that interests you most.

A word of warning about free museum hours: tourists are not the only ones who take advantage of this. There were definitely fishy people wandering around in both museums paying more attention to visitors’ bags than the art. So keep an eye on your belongings and give the stink eye to anyone invading your personal space.

Madrid with parents iPhone
My Dad and I in line for churros!

I made sure we stopped at Chocolateria San Gines for their churros con chocolate. This place has been serving only churros and chocolate for over 120 years. Sign. Me. UP. We waited in line. And then I choked and ordered 2 servings of this nonsense. For those of you who don’t know, I have a ridiculously insatiable sweet tooth and had to place myself on a cold turkey sugar fast earlier this year when I realized I was poisoning myself. Yes, poison. Puking, ruined day, skin issues… Just order one of these churro things, mmk? Share it with two other people and thank me later. I am literally still recovering from bad food decisions made on this trip.

Madrid with parents iPhone
Death by chocolate at San Gines
Madrid with parents iPhone
My parents in the park

During a break in the rainy weather we also walked through some of the gardens and parks, spotted green parrot-like birds, and I actually talked to a man for about 5 minutes in Spanish. Truthfully, he asked me all the questions I knew how to answer. I’ve been listening to the Coffee Break Spanish podcast over the last year and it was like this stranger knew the script. I highly recommend that podcast if you want to learn/brush up on your Spanish skills. Far fewer people spoke English in Madrid than Barcelona, and I was really glad I spent so much time practicing. For the record, I only have one semester of Spanish under my belt, which I took senior year of college because I was bored, so even total novices would like that podcast.

Also for the record, being a foreigner and trying so hard to learn basic words and phrases to get by in all these foreign countries makes me appreciate the people and nations that are friendly and patient with their visitors. In my experience, two nations have serious work to do. One starts with A. The other starts with F.

And on that note, excuse me while I go put a bag over my head so no one asks me about the election today.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor

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Spain Roadtrip Part I: Madrid

Paris & a Fab Way to See a Big City in a Weekend

Planning a short trip to a new and epic city is always a bit daunting. NYC, London, Rome… PARIS… I want to see as many of the iconic sites as possible, but also spend time away from tourists, mingling with the locals and experiencing their favorite corners of the busy streets. Finding this balance in a short trip is challenging, and my list of must-sees in Paris was much longer than I could tackle in 2 days. But we managed to see a lot for almost no money thanks to one simple decision. We rented bikes!!

iPhone Paris
Biking at the Louvre

Budget friendly, efficient, scenic… biking in Paris was so so fun!!

We used the bike sharing scheme called Vélib’ which has more than 14k bicycles available for grab and go rides. A 24-hour pass for unlimited bike rentals was about 1.70. Crazy cheap! Type in your user code at one of the machines, pick out a bike, and it’s yours for free for the next 30 minutes. Every time you check out a bike, the first 30 minutes are free, and you can do this as many times as you want. We used Vélib’ constantly and it was so simple and easy. It was also the only time we felt a breeze while in Paris. Try it and you’ll be amazed at all the ground you can cover!

iPhone Paris
Biking at the Louvre

We woke up very early on Saturday to see some of the big stuff before the other tourists were awake and swarming. Despite our lack of sleep, this was definitely a good choice. We biked along the Seine and stopped to return the bikes and wander whenever we saw something we wanted to check out. It was early enough that the sun hadn’t baked the city to a crisp and the only cars were delivery trucks and a few taxis. We visited Notre Dame, the Louvre & Jardin des Tuileries, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées and the Petit Palais all before lunch. The city is gorgeous and packed with fabulous buildings, and I know we biked by other significant things that in my ignorance I can’t name. We had second breakfast at a cafe, grabbed lunch to go, and enjoyed a midday siesta at our Airbnb. The joke’s on all those other tourists gritting it out in the sweltering sun, dodging elbows and dudes selling tchotchkes.

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Unknown Beautiful Building #1. I think it’s a library.
The Louvre
the Louvre
Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars
Eiffel Tower from Champ de Mars
Arc de Triumph
Arc de Triomphe
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
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Louvre and Jardin des Tuileries

After a nap, another cup of coffee, and a shower, we went to Saturday evening Mass at Notre Dame. Confession: this was one of those “pinch me” moments that was so moving and overwhelming that I’m really at a loss for words. I had some kind of a “moment” and I should probably take some time to process whatever it is that went down, because I just couldn’t keep it together once we were inside the cathedral. It’s like I stepped through the door into a cloud of emotion that was completely unexpected and overwhelming in its intensity. I was not PMSing, drunk, or tired, thankyouverymuch. I just felt this profound sense of gratitude… for my life, faith, wonderful husband, the many eye opening experiences of the past year, my sister’s recent engagement, the fact that I was basically standing in the World Headquarters of Mary, Inc., and so much more. It’s like the realization of this crazy beautiful life I’m living hit me in the face. Each time I think back on that evening I can’t help but tear up all over again.

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In John XXIII Square before Mass
Inside Notre Dame
Interior of Notre Dame
Notre Dame
Notre Dame de Paris

So that happened. Then we had dinner on the Seine at a great place Connor found that was a secret little local hangout. It took forever to find, and was completely worth the trouble. We shared a table with another couple and enjoyed a mini jazz concert going on in the background. After dinner and some wandering we plunked down on the Seine like everyone else and feasted on wine, Camembert, apples and crackers.

Ready for our picnic
Picnic on the Seine
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Dusk

We ended the day with a walk back to Le Marais where we were staying (fab neighborhood, Jewish Quarter, straddles the 3rd and 4th arrondissements) and saw the glittering Eiffel Tower from a bridge. The little dude knows how to sparkle, let me tell you.

Sunday morning we walked around Place des Vosges, a beautiful little square around the corner from our apartment, also former home of Victor Hugo and a bunch of fancy Frenchmen whose names do not ring a bell.

Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges
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Place des Vosges

We biked over to Musée d’Orsay and guess what!? No line! Fun fact about me: I can’t stand lines. Or queues, as I’ve learned to call them. There are very few things that I consider worth queuing for. Museums and tourist things are generally no where close to being on that list.

Musee d'Orsay - Sunday morning adventure
Musée d’Orsay

I do, however, have a soft spot for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art so I’m glad my patience wasn’t tested that morning. (Before you feel sorry for Connor, he enjoys this genre, too. Also, he didn’t suggest any alternatives…) Musée d’Orsay has a really robust collection and to say we were impressed is an understatement. I’ve never seen so many Degas sculptures in one place in my life! And the Monets on display were so diverse. The more I check out the work of Impressionists in the cities we visit, the more I love them. (RE: the Louvre. I couldn’t spend half our trip in a single museum. Maybe next time.) We narrowed our museum options down to the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay. l’Orangerie is the smaller museum famous for the oval rooms designed by Monet and covered in his waterlily murals. I’d love to see that someday, too.

We visited some shops that afternoon including the legendary English bookstore Shakespeare and Co. that I think every English major has on her bucket list. The current store is a descendant of the one Sylvia Beach opened on Paris’ left bank that was a haven for writers and would-be-writers that closed during the Nazi occupation. The eccentric George Whitman opened the existing store that is now run by his daughter, Sylvia, and it continues the tradition of providing a home for Tumbleweeds in exchange for help at the store. I fully intended to purchase something here but they marked up the prices so drastically I couldn’t justify it. Instead, I bought a paintbrush from Charvin Arts. I hoped to make it to Sennelier where Picasso, Cézanne, and others shopped for supplies, but again, next time!

iPhone Paris
Shakespeare and Co

We mostly wandered little streets for the rest of the day, ate macaroons, relaxed in some gardens, saw the Louvre one last time, and had a delicious dinner.

iPhone Paris
Sunset at the Louvre

Be forewarned if you visit Paris in August; you need to be flexible because August Closures are a real thing! But don’t avoid the city because of this. More than enough is open that you could stay busy for months!

Paris & a Fab Way to See a Big City in a Weekend

Two Days in London: Art and Markets

This is a rare moment for me: I’m admitting defeat. I ended my afternoon early and I’m in the hotel room bed, chilled to the bone. Oh, and my left pinky toe sliced open his brother, which is fun. Did you know that band-aids (is there a hyphen?) are called “plasters” over here? Well now you know. You’re welcome.

Anyways. We are in London until tomorrow morning; Connor is in the middle of busy-season and has a client in the city. I tagged along because, free hotel. Duh. I spent the entire day in the National Gallery yesterday, which was definitely not the plan. But every time I turned the corner there was another hotshot flaunting his* talent in new and unfamiliar (to me) ways. For example, there was a magnificent painting of two lively crabs by Van Gogh. They also have his Sunflowers piece, which is the definition of butt.  
What is even happening here? Sunflowers are decidedly not brown. Are they dying? The crabs are way better.

*Yes, ladies, we are severely underrepresented in the masterpiece art world. 

The National Gallery Has a great section of impressionists and post-impressionists, always my favorite. This part of the collection seemed smaller than its counterpart at the Art Institute of Chicago, but it was so fun seeing a new set of work by artists that I really love. I often think that I could look at this stuff all day, and since the weather was crappy,  and I was alone, that’s exactly what I did. And I bought a print by Degas, one of my favorite dudes, from the gift shop. You can see a picture on my Instagram.

Connor and I did happy hour at BrewDog, a must-try brewery if you’re in the UK. It tasted like home!! We ended Dry January early, sorry fellow abstainers. Dinner was at Bull in a China Shop, mostly because of its name and proximity to BrewDog. Food was excellent (quinoa salad and ribs). The place was weird though… We thought it was a pub, but it was actually a high-end Japanese whiskey bar. Oops.

After breakfast this morning I walked down to the Thames to enjoy the sunshine while I waited for all of the shops to open. Visiting London in January mid-week is fabulous. There are no crowds, no lines. You might even get by without a dinner reservation. If it rains there are plenty of things to do inside, and many of the main attractions are free. If the sun is out like today, it could be in the 50s in the sun! The wind will ruin you, though.

Tower Bridge

 

Tower of London

 

Tower of London

 

The Shard and HMS Belfast WWII Warship

Notice there are no people in any of these pictures! It was very peaceful.

I checked out Leadenhall Market a bit later, where a few scenes from Harry Potter were filmed. There’s supposed to be great food in this area but it was too early for lunch, so I continued on to Spitalfields Market.

Spitalfields Market

 

Leadenhall Market

I finally bought myself a black wool hat at Spitalfields. I’d been eyeing all these hat shops since we moved here and I’m very excited to jump on this British bandwagon. I’ve always had a thing for hats, and I’ve had some terrible ones in my day (pink velvety cowboy hat anyone?) The jury’s still out on this new addition. I may or may not look like Carmen Sandiego. Connor will tell me. At least it’s black, the right size, and I know the whole history of the classic style from the Chatty Kathy Salesman. He was wearing a cream suit with tails and a matching top hat. Obviously I trust his judgment.

I shopped around Spitafields – Thursday is antique day – and bough some lunch from one of the many food trucks. There’s a whole section of the market devoted to independent artists, so fun!!! Later in the afternoon I tried to covertly snap some shots of the ubiquitous, colorful street art in Shoreditch. I discovered (a bit too late for this trip) that there are guided street art tours in this neighborhood. I’d love to do this on a future London outing! The only street artist I can be counted on to recognize is Stik. Maybe some Banksy, but not always.  

werk

 

Stik!

 Up next: dinner. I’m still in a food coma from my falafel so not sure what we’ll do.
Disclaimer: I’m having issues formatting this post the way I would like since I’m on my phone, so when I push “post” in two seconds I have no idea what this is going to look like. 

Two Days in London: Art and Markets