We had an incredible four months in Europe that were filled
with adventure, but there is nothing like being home for the holidays. It was time for the Raffs to head back to the
USA to celebrate with the Mathews’ side of the family. We had a busy 2.5 weeks which we spent
primarily in Brownsburg, Indiana at my parent’s house with a quick trip to
Minnesota to see my brother’s family.
I’m only going to touch on the highlights.
I did find it a bit stressful to go from living out of one
backpack for four months to being home and reunited with all the stuff we left
behind in the van. It was great to have
a slight change in wardrobe (jeans felt so good)! It was a little overwhelming, and a good
reminder that we don’t need that much stuff to be happy.
One of the things that we missed the most while traveling
was home cooked meals, so we really enjoyed being able to cook at my parent’s
house. I even got to bake a red velvet
cake, cinnamon rolls from scratch and help with the family tradition of
The other thing that I really missed while traveling was a
good shower with loads of hot water.
Plus, a shower door so the water doesn’t go all over the bathroom and a
fixed shower head! Oh, and I’ll just add
in being able to do laundry every few days is such a treat.
However, the best part of being home was spending time with
my family. I am very lucky to have an
amazing family that all get along and have fun together! We do have a little sibling rivalry,
especially when it comes to the placement of each kids’ ornaments on the tree. My sister moved all her ornaments to the
front and center of the Christmas tree, so I decided to take revenge by hiding
them around the house. Once she realized
they were missing, she went on an ornament hunt which might just have to become
a new tradition!
I also very much enjoyed spending time with my Grandma who
will be turning 97 in January. She
perfectly timed several jokes during our Christmas celebration and even got caught
cheating playing Taboo! I cherish every
moment that I get to spend with her as she is an amazing person.
We had many new experiences while being home including
learning how to ride electric scooters from our 2nd cousins, being
driven around by my 16-year-old niece and playing Magic: the Gathering
with my nephew! It was a treat to hang
with the “youngs” even if they did call us “ok boomer”!
Craggin’ was happy to have us home, and we took him on a
road trip to Minneapolis to visit my brother’s family. We had a great visit playing with the kids
and catching up with my brother and his wife.
I especially enjoyed learning new games and getting crushed in chess by one
of my nephews! Mike enjoyed wresting with
the boys and playing bird bingo with his neice.
We did enjoy a few local brewpubs and a really decked out brunch place
We rung in the New Year with the family and enjoyed my
brother’s amazing tiki cocktails. I
loved having a dance party with the kiddos, and I finally figured out how to be
part of the cool club! We toasted 2020
with our French champagne that we brought from Paris. It was the perfect celebration.
The last few days was filled with errands and packing. It was a tricky pack job for only a 2-month excursion to South America. The tricky part was figuring out what gear to bring for our 2-week high-altitude climbing expedition. We eventually got it figured out and were ready to catch our flight to Ecuador!
It was the perfect break in our travels to enjoy lots of family time before transitioning to another continent. I am very thankful for my generous parents who let us crash at their house for 2.5 weeks and turn their basement into packing madness. We really enjoyed spending time with everyone and helping prepare and clean-up from the holiday celebrations. We did miss the Raff side of the family but look forward to spending time with them in May. The mountains are calling us again, and we must go! Happy 2020 everyone!
Our final stop in Europe required some flexibility because
much of France was in the middle of a transportation strike at the time of our
visit. During planning, we originally included Versailles and Reims (the
champagne region near Paris) on our itinerary, but those were now out of the
question. Paris was going to take some patience, but how often has anyone
heard, “I was stuck in Paris…it was awful”?
We immediately struggled leaving the airport. We knew that
the metro was almost entirely shut down. Taxis were charging 50 Euros from the
airport to town. While the bus system was also running on greatly reduced
schedules, the airport bus seemed to be available for 32 Euros. We
optimistically ignored the mob waiting in one unsupervised mass for three
different buses; I am pretty sure we cut in front of a bunch of people since no
one knew where lines started or ended. After 90 minutes and a frustrating
number of buses passing without stopping, we finally managed to crowd our way
on to the bus. I’m not sure it was worth saving 18 Euro, but at least we made
it to town!
The bus dropped us off right by the Eiffel Tower, so my
first experience in Paris was standing right below one of the city’s icons.
Here’s the thing, though: the Eiffel Tower is pretty darn ugly up close in the
daytime! I was starting to wonder whether we’d made a big mistake (you might
remember, this isn’t our first experience in a striking country), but Sarah
assured me that I’d like the tower better when it was lit up and sparkling at
night. Also, cheese.
This was Sarah’s third time in Paris, and she made a great
choice in booking our room near Rue Cler market street. We enjoyed strolling
along here with Parisians each day to “window lick” at chocolate shops with
beautifully decorated morsels, fruit and veggie markets, tempting delis, and fancy
boutiques. It was fun to go into wine stores that asked, “what will you be
eating?” before making any suggestions, and the fromagerie featured more
stinky cheese than I could consume in a lifetime of stinky cheese tasting! Each
morning, we’d stop at the boulangerie a block from our hotel, and Sarah
would use her French skills to order us amazing pain du chocolate
(croissants) and café allonges (Americanos).
French people have a reputation to Americans as being
snooty, but we found the opposite in our time; it’s amazing what a smile and a
few phrases—“Bonjour, madame!”, “Au revoir, monsieur!”, and “Merci!”—will
do to warm others. In our experience with French tourists in other countries,
they are insecure about their English, which makes them seem unfriendly.
However, I can relate to feeling hesitant to make mistakes in other languages,
and we found Parisians willing to make us feel at home.
We spent our first morning on a self-guided historical city
walk. Because of the strike, we spent nearly two hours a day just walking.
Luckily, we had sunny days, and much of the walking was along the pretty
pedestrian boulevards lining the Seine River. It was very interesting to watch
the city attempt to operate during the strike; we saw a ton of wobbly old
bikes, inexperienced scooter riders, and almost constant traffic jams. We also
heard a ton of sirens and saw emergency response vehicles taking over bike
lanes in order to get through the jams, but mostly I think everyone stayed
Our first major site was closed not due to the strike but
because of fire. Notre Dame Cathedral is still a beautiful building to behold,
even if we couldn’t go inside. The front exterior is still mostly intact, and
we found it remarkable that they were able to save the rose window during the
fire. Even with all the damage and scaffolding, I enjoyed seeing it; someday, I
will get to go inside!
The Sainte-Chappelle was the highlight of the morning. King
Louis IX had it built from 1242-48 in order to house the supposed Crown of
Thorns (no longer there). The cliché, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” is an
appropriate description for this chapel; the exterior is quite dull, but
stepping inside is like candy for the eyes! The basement level where commoners
worshipped has an interesting low ceiling with narrow vaults and colorful
floral patterns painted on the walls. However, it pales in comparison to the
magnificent upper chapel where royals worshipped. Gothic stained-glass covers
nearly the entire area of the walls. No grand statues are necessary here; this colorful
light-bathed chapel is perfect as it is!
With the strike limiting our options outside of the city, we
focused much of our time on Paris’ famous art museums, beginning with the
Louvre. Trying to see everything in this giant former palace would be
impossible, and we had no interest in overdosing on a million Madonna and
Crucifixion paintings. Instead, we followed Uncle Ricky’s suggested path, which
has served us well in the past. Highlights included two stunning Greek statues:
the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory of Samothrace. It was cool
that we saw these statues near the beginning of our week because these two
female figures seemed to pop up often in various other art and architecture
around the city.
We were a little disappointed that most of the Raphael and
De Vinci works weren’t on display, but I enjoyed the Mona Lisa more than
I thought I would; the museum has a new system to allow a few people at a time
five minutes to see her without pushing and shoving. I think this made it
easier to appreciate her since the painting is not very large. For me, the many
ways of interpreting her famed half smile and mysterious eyes made her very
intriguing; I think you could look at her every day and match her mood and
story to your mood at that particular moment.
The Louvre may have all the heavy hitters, but we both preferred
the d’Orsay Museum because of its focus on Impressionism. For Sarah, it was a
chance to get to enjoy some old favorites, and I enjoyed getting acquainted
with a very pleasant new style of art. The building itself, housed in a former
train station, is a novel and cool place for an art museum. Two iconic clocks
dress the place up, especially the window clock that offers fine views of the
Louvre and famous Ferris wheel in the distance.
Sarah was excited that they had a full exhibit on Degas and
his “Dancers” series, so she got her ballet fix for the month, and we both
enjoyed the section on Van Gogh. I thought it was interesting the way you could
see his chaotic view of the world in the combination of wavy lines and bright
colors he used to depict typically serene subjects like churches or his
bedroom. Most of all, though, we both loved Monet for his beautiful open-air
landscapes; it was amazing to me how he could layer simple broad strokes of
different colors to create detailed impressions of nature in its best light.
We spent our afternoon in the Rodin museum; going in, I only
knew that he was “The Thinker Guy.” I actually liked much more of his work; he
was a stud when it came to depicting twisting lovers doing twisting loving
things. Like the Impressionists, his works were often very pretty. He also took
risks, though, and some of his more interesting works portrayed very average
(even homely) humans.
Still, though, The Thinker was one of those things
you need to see before you really get it…on one level, those jokes about
sitting on the pot might still not be too far off the mark. On the other hand,
though, the subject is a physically gifted worker struggling with deep
reflection; the statue’s garden setting seems perfect for avoiding distraction
or hiding from buddies who might mock him. It would have been easy for us to
skip Rodin after all the art museums we’d done, but I’m glad we went.
We rounded out our art fest the next morning at The
Orangerie, which houses Monet’s The Water Lilies. His masterpiece captures
the pond outside his home in Giverny. It was sort of interesting to see a
museum that was originally intended to hold a specific piece of art; how would
you like to have Claude Monet as your interior decorator? He was old and nearly
blind by the time he finished but still managed to create an opus requiring 2
rooms and 8 walls—6 ½ ft. tall and 55 ft. long per canvas. Each wall is an
impression of the pond in different light; Sarah and I both preferred the morning
best because the colors were pretty, but the details were more defined than the
blurs of late afternoon’s intense light.
That afternoon we walked the overrated Champs Elysee to the
impressive Arc de Triomphe. Napoleon commissioned it to celebrate his army’s
surprising victory over Austria’s much larger army at the Battle of Austerlitz.
It’s 165 feet tall and very stately. The views from the top were awesome; you
could see pretty much any landmark in the city, including a cool view of the
Eiffel Tower. It was also interesting to
watch traffic in the gigantic round-about below; unlike anywhere else, incoming
cars have the right-of-way. To add to the fun, there were quite a few nubes on
bikes trying to join in the fun! I also heard several tired tourists echoing
our thoughts, “man, we’ve walked a LONG way this week”!
At this point, we were pretty much over museums, and major
protests were planned all over Paris (not because we were tired of art…there
was a strike, remember?) the next day. One might ask, WWTRD? You got it:
wine tasting! Sarah booked a French wine class with a real sommelier! We
learned a few tricks about visual cues (you can judge a wine’s age by the
curved meniscus you see when tilting the glass), and it was very cool to learn
about the regions of France. Bordeaux, for example, is surprisingly small but
produces 6% of the world’s wine! The tasting was the best part, though, and we
got to enjoy real champagne and several wines with creative cheese pairings—who
knew that bleu cheese and sweet wine play well together? What a fun way to
spend a strike day!
On the way home, we stopped
at Napoleon’s Tomb. Sitting below a lovely domed chapel, it’s as grand as you
might expect. The walls are carved with images of Napoleon as a Greek god doing
wonderful things. While his actual “coffin” looks big and fancy, it’s only the
outer shell of several increasingly smaller cases—like one of those Russian
babushka dolls. Apparently, his body was perfectly preserved when they opened
it to move him nearly 20 years after he died. I don’t know much about Napoleon,
but our week in Paris has intrigued me; thanks to Waterloo (and Bill and Ted),
he’s often portrayed as a joke, but the dude conquered most of Europe within 5
years of taking the throne at age 30!
We chose to keep our last day in Paris fairly light…no
museums! Instead, we walked 500 miles to walk 500 more just to be the couple
who walked 1,000 miles to walk around the trendy Marais neighborhood. Actually,
it was pretty fun and included the Place de Bastille, the building where Jim
Morrison died, cool old mansions that have been turned into public spaces, the
Place de Vosges where nobles (and Victor Hugo) once lived, and the Jewish
Quarter. We ended at the beautiful city hall where Charles de Gaulle announced
liberation from the Nazis. It was an interesting afternoon.
I could write a separate blog just on the food we ate this
week (yup, I tried snails), but I will instead describe our most unforgettable
meal in Paris. We donned our best hiking pants and $20 sweaters for a 3-course
meal at an intimate little place called Bistro Belhara; it was the romantic
warm environment that we picture from French dining! Our waiter was charming,
funny, and so confident in his recommendations that we just followed his lead.
The result was a rich, satisfying meal with an extraordinary dessert! We
started with creamy pumpkin soup with a bit of duck confit and spice, and our
main course was a flavorful take on boeuf bourguignon. Dessert was an
amazingly aromatic, light and fluffy Gran Marnier souffle. These two foodies
felt like we’d gone to heaven!
We capped off our week in Paris by standing below the Eiffel Tower as it shimmered in sparkling lights at the top of the evening hour. While I wasn’t impressed with it at first glance the week before, I’d learned to appreciate its beauty from different angles around town, and it was dazzling at the right moment in the right light. Considering some of the limitations of our visit, it was a fairly good metaphor for two very casual art fans being “stuck” in Paris during a strike before we finally came home for the holidays.
As Mike mentioned in his last blog, once we had decided to
head back to Central Europe to see Vienna, I quickly finished the itinerary
with Prague. I was excited to explore
the city of spires and to learn about the Czech Republic’s history.
On our way to Prague, we had a day layover in Cesky
Krumlov. The town is tiny, but it was fun
to walk through the medieval streets.
Old town is full of pensions and restaurants as all the locals live in
new town, so it feels a little too touristy.
However, the views from the castle and nearby hills are amazing. We made the most out of the warm sunny day by
taking a few random hikes to nearby hill tops.
It felt great to be outside in nature, and every little bit will help us
get in shape for climbing in Ecuador!
The highlight was dinner at a small local pub. The pub wasn’t busy but there were a few
locals including a grandpa and his family.
Midway through our dinner, an accordion player arrived. Turns out the grandpa was a singer and this
pub is their favorite location to sing Czech folk songs. The other patrons in the restaurants were
Czech tourists, so it turned into quite the sing-along affair with the kids
dancing. It was such a fun night to
enjoy the Czech beer and listen to their music!
We had 3 days to explore Prague and packed in the
sightseeing. The first day we focused on
old and new town following Uncle Ricky’s tour.
We have really enjoyed these throughout Europe. Mike navigates and reads with his great teacher’s voice. I take the photos (only when allowed😊). Mike often impersonates Ricky making me laugh
especially when we do the spin tours.
Old town square is in the heart of the city and is home to a
big Christmas market. The square is
awesome and very large. In the center is
a moving sculpture of Jan Hus, a religious reformer, who has become a symbol of
Czech Nationalism. In 1400, he led the
Hussite movement to allow everyone to drink wine at communion, not just the priests. Eventually, he was burned at the stake here in
the square. But the Hussites prevailed
and became the main religion for 200 years until the Habsburgs overtook Czechia
and reinstated Catholicism.
Towering over the square on one side is the Tyin church with
twin fancy spires that are unlike anything we have seen before. They look so elegant and pretty with numerus small
spires. The front of the church shows
both its Catholic and Hussite roots…a chalice = Hussite + Mary = Catholics.
Across the square is old town hall and its famous bell tower
with its astronomical clock swarmed by tourists. It is quite the spectacle! At the top of the hour, the clock does a
fancy cuckoo clock-like routine. There
are 4 visible statues that start to move with death pulling the bell. Meanwhile, through 2 small doors, the 12
apostles appear. At the end, the rooster
crows and a tiny bell chimes. I thought
it was hilarious that such a tiny bell ended this large spectacle!
The clock itself is quite cool with many things that it
tracks…time, time of sunset, zodiac signs and the daily saint. We had a fun time trying to figure out how it
all worked. Amazing that it was built in
Continuing our city tour, we visited the Powder Tower. It is 500 years old and the only surviving
part of the old city wall. It was also
the city’s formal entrance and housed…you guessed it: gun powder! There was a ton of traffic as this was the
main car exit from old town. It made me
thankful for the many traffic free zones that we have enjoyed during our
From here, we headed to the new town’s Wenceslas Square
which was named for the duke who united the Czech people in 900 to create a
nation. This square is the home of
several key protests during the communism era including the 1968 Prague Spring. During this time, the secretary tried to
lessen the oppressive restraints and let the people enjoy a little more
freedom. However, the Soviets didn’t approve,
so they invaded in August with tanks and over 200,000 soldiers to gain
control. It was hard to imagine what
that must have looked and felt liked while standing in this square!
Military presence remained in Prague until the Velvet
Revolution in 1989. In November, there
was a student demonstration near this square that the Soviets squashed. Nine students
died and a thousand were arrested. This
kicked off another protest which lasted for a month. Every evening, 300k Czechs stood in this
square jingling their keys to express their desire for the doors to be unlocked
and for the Soviets to leave. It worked
and led to a peaceful end to communism. Again,
so much history in this one spot. One of
my favorite parts of traveling is to learn about history and stand in these
spots imagining what it must have been like.
It also makes me so grateful to have grown up in the States only hearing
about these events and not experiencing them.
The last stop of the day was the Jalta Hotel’s Cold War Museum
located on Wenceslas Square. The museum is
in a former nuclear fallout shelter that was also used to spy on the hotel’s
guests. The tour was fantastic, and I
felt like I was part of a spy novel. We
got to see the air filtration system, escape tunnels and the telephone
listening system. Our college-age tour
guide was super knowledgeable and quite funny.
We got to see a toilet paper roll (aka lots of thin little pieces of
paper). When they ran out, they used the
propaganda newspapers as they were cheap and plentiful. It was a great stop!
On day 2, we explored the castle area of town. Our first stop was Charles Bridge, dating
from 1357. We arrived before the hordes
and were rewarded with amazing views with good morning light! The bridge is 7 football fields long and was
the only bridge for 400 years. The
bridge is lined with statues of saints that were added during the Habsburg’s rule
to remind the citizens to be good Catholics.
From the bridge, we walked up the steep hill to the castle
square. We were happy to see that we had
again beat the rush and opted to tour the St. Vitus Cathedral first. The cathedral is pure gothic with its spires,
flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings. The
first thing you notice when you enter is the light. The front of the church is flooded with it
and draws you inside. The church took
forever to be built; started in 1344 and finally finished in 1929! Halfway down the aisle is a slight lift in
the floor which indicates the half that was finished first.
My favorite part was the Wenceslas Chapel. Historically, the kings and queens were
coronated in this chapel and the crown jewels are still stored here. They are in a special safe that has 7 unique
keys held by 7 different Prague citizens.
After touring the church, we went into the old palace. The great hall was huge as they built it long
enough to joust indoors! The best part
was the interlacing ceiling which added a nice detail to the giant space.
Following our full morning of touring the castle area, we
opted for lunch at the nearby monastery’s brewery. It was founded in 1628, and the beer was
awesome! I ordered a grilled cheese
thinking it would be nice on a cold day.
Well, it literally was just grilled cheese! Delicious, but not quite what I was
We were tired by our 3rd day in Prague, so we
opted for a low-key morning to catch up on journals and the blog. Luckily, our hotel had a cozy living room
with a fake, crackling fire and classical music. It was the perfect place to
enjoy an extra cup of coffee and catch up.
We also enjoyed it each evening as they provided free wine!
After our relaxing morning, we decided to tour the Jewish Quarter
which was right down the street from our hotel.
The Jews were forced to live in this swampy area in very tight quarters
with many restrictions and super high taxes.
In the 1890’s, many of the medieval buildings were demolished to make
way for wide streets and Art Nouveau style buildings. Most of the synagogues survived and are open
to the public as museums.
Our first stop was the Pinkas Synagogue which has been
turned into a memorial for victims of the holocaust. The walls are covered with 77,297 names of
Czechia Jews who died. The names are handwritten
and organized by city and name. Every
wall of the 16th century synagogue is covered. While touring, you listen to a recording of
the names being spoken. Of the 55k Jews
in Prague in 1940, only 10k survived, and only 3k live in Prague today.
Upstairs is an exhibit of children’s drawings from the
Terezin camp outside of Prague. The teacher
in the camp, had the children draw these and hid them away when she was sent to
another camp. She survived and retrieved
the drawings to tell the stories. Most
of the children died. It was heartbreaking
to see the children’s interpretation of their daily lives.
Outside the synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery. This was the only legal cemetery for 400
years, and over 85k people are buried here with 12k crooked tombstones. Space
was limited, so they buried on top of each body raising the level of the ground
to 6’ above current city street level!
Our last stop of the day was the Old-New Synagogue, which is
the oldest in Central Europe, built in 1270.
It is 6’ under modern street level.
The inside is gothic and quite Christian looking as it was built by Christian
stone masons most familiar with building churches.
Prague held up to my expectations and it is such a beautiful city. The sightseeing was awesome, and I really enjoyed learning about their fascinating history. It was a great last stop of our Central Europe tour before heading to our last stop… Paris!
After I allegedly chose Vienna as a new destination for us, Sarah
immediately requested that we go to Prague; Salzburg was almost an afterthought
to break up the trip, but I started getting more excited about it after
researching a little more deeply before we went. Despite having fewer big
attractions than Vienna, Salzburg features a beautiful setting along a river at
the foot of the Austrian Alps. Even better, we were going to be here on St.
Nicholas Day, making the Christmas markets even livelier than normal.
We spent our first day wandering around Salzburg’s lovely
old town area. Thanks to both a clifftop fortress overlooking the city and the
ability to ship (and tax) the region’s rich salt deposits on the river (Salz+Burg=Salt+Town),
Salzburg controlled half of Austria during the city’s peak. A Rome-loving
leader helped give it the distinctly Italian flair that made the city famously picturesque,
with interconnected squares, fountains and statues, and Baroque domes (38
Catholic churches). Many of the main squares also featured Christmas markets
while we there, and Salzburg more than anywhere else put me in the holiday spirit.
Salzburg’s baroque style cathedral was a refreshing change
after the long line of Gothic churches we’d toured throughout Europe. Two domed
towers with balustrades and half-columns were distinguishing features of the
exteriors. When you step inside, your first observation is its impressive height,
partly because the central dome’s skylight draws your focus forward and upward…like
a light shining down from heaven. Stucco and brightly painted murals added to
this effect, and I found myself enjoying the contrast to so many of the dark gothic
cathedrals we’d visited. Still though, Austrian-faced Jesus looked a little
strange after all the Italian and Spanish-faced messiahs the past few months.
The church contained 5 separate organs—Mozart not only played and composed
masses here, but this was also the site where he was baptized.
One of the things I liked about Salzburg was the small rural
feel it somehow maintained while also being a large modern city. I think the
best descriptive term would be “old world charm.” A good example was the water
wheel that powers a flour mill near the Cathedral. As early as the 12th
century, wheels like this were used as a part of a clean freshwater system that
piped water from the Alps to the city; Salzburg was among the only large European
cities never to suffer the plague. Today, it also prevented us from suffering
hunger; the bakery attached to the mill served up some pretty tasty rolls!
Mozart’s birthplace was probably the main attraction we toured;
of course, Salzburg’s history as the real life home of the Von Trapp family would
be of equal interest to many, but no matter how popular Sound of Music might
be, I prefer not to spend time on things that suck. Anyway, Mozart’s birthplace
is museum that covers 3 floors of the building in which he was born and raised.
It’s sort of a weird hodgepodge of his possessions (combs, locks of hair,
letters, his childhood “square piano”), interesting biographies of his family,
and records of his accomplishments (awards, composition notes), and portraits.
It was sort of funny that every likeness of ol’ Wolfgang
Amadeus in Salzburg is thought to be a poor likeness except for one about the
size of a postage stamp; I think he might not have been the best looking
fellow. Also, according to the museum, Mozart did not end up in poverty, he
just owed way more money than he made! Despite the ragtag organization of the exhibit,
I did learn quite a bit about him, and one could do worse than listening to
Mozart for an hour or two. Oh, I almost forgot, Sarah decided to take a picture
of our longtime bane—the no photo plaque—only to be reprimanded sternly for the
photographing “no photo”!
As usual, we spent most of our time in the city’s old town,
but we also tried to venture to the new town for meals—often we have a better
experience for both food and atmosphere. Salzburg has a great beer scene, and
Biergarten die Wiesse brewed some of the best beer we had in Europe. This wood-paneled
hall with Christmas lights draped over mounted antlers was full of both travelers
and locals enjoying cheap pub grub and pints. I ordered something with some
seriously stinky cheese in it, and Sarah grabbed some Spatzle with fried onions
and bacon. The stars, though, were the dunkel and Christmas ale that I wished I
could have taken home.
That evening we had a vast array of entertainment. As I
mentioned earlier, it was St. Nicholas Day in Austria, and he was set to make an
appearance in the main square around 7:00. He wouldn’t be alone, though,
because he is only the good cop that rewards nice children; Krampus, on the
other hand, is a horned goat thing that scares naughty children into better
behavior by threatening to kidnap them in the basket he wears on his back. As
many as 1,000 Krampuses invade the town on St. Nicholas Day (I guess it is
actually a big problem sometimes as drunken Krampuses get carried away and even
violent). We toured the Christmas market for a bit before waiting by the stage
as a drum team tried to entice Krampus into the square; we had to leave,
though, because we had tickets to a concert. Luckily, we ran right into the mob
of creatures as we left the square—Sarah even got hit over the head by one of
them, but I guess that was actually supposed to bring good luck.
The concert was great! It was set in a fancy hall that was small
enough to make us feel that the string quintet was playing directly to our regal
selves as we relaxed with other nobles in the court. The quintet was sometimes accompanied
by an oboe and always by a harpsicord. They played Mozart, Vivaldi, and a
couple of other composers I didn’t know. I’d never heard live classical music
in a setting this intimate, and I found it very pleasant. The violinist and the
cello both played by memory alone, and each member sort of brought his/her own
distinct personality to the show. The main violinist was a real showman who put
every emotion he had into his energetic and talented performance. Sarah and I
don’t often go to live music of any sort at home, but we thought maybe we
should start after this memorable night.
With our second full day in Salzburg, we went for hike right
outside town. Neither winter conditions nor time would allow us into the
mountains, but we were able to hike a couple of miles through an urban park to
a great viewpoint of the old town and fortress. We enjoyed the sunny but brisk
air, and the trees still held their orange leaves. It was a beautiful way to experience
Salzburg while burning off some of the heavy Austrian food and beer. We decided
to keep the walking theme going after returning to town; there is a wonderful trail
connecting both sides of the river with pedestrian bridges.
To cap off our day, we stopped at the rowdy Augustiner
Braustubl beer hall before heading home. This monk-run brewery features two
giant open tavern halls and an outdoor beer garden. You grab either a ½ or full
liter mug, rinse it out, pay, and give your receipt to the keg guy. He fills
your mug to overflowing with cold, foam-topped beer and slams it down on the
counter. The beer wasn’t quite as good as the stuff from the day before, but
when else do you get to drink beer next to a table of 40 Austrian regulars
(this is a beer club that is called a Stammtisch; they meet regularly and
missing it results in a beer fine)?
Salzburg was an interesting mix of history, musical arts, and beautiful scenery (manmade and natural); plus, the Christmas festivities made our experience even better! Both Sarah and I wished we had more time in Vienna and Salzburg, and I think they are near the top of our list for a return some day. I am glad we experienced them around the holiday, but I’d love to explore the outdoor playground of the Danube River near Vienna and Salzburg’s Austrian Alps as well!
“I pick Vienna” said Mike during our planning session on
where to go in Europe for our last few weeks.
I was surprised but thrilled. Later,
he said he didn’t even remember picking Vienna, but he thought it was a good
choice. So, we dropped our original plan to spend longer in Morocco (you might
remember we ended up not going there at all) and headed back to Central Europe to enjoy the
Christmas markets, beer and learn some more about those Habsburgs.
Vienna greeted us with sunshine but cold temperatures and a
freezing wind. I was thankful for our
new Black Friday duds that we bought in Granada (You may also enjoy us wearing
something new). It was quite the
difference from Granada’s 60-degree weather!
It was so cold, that even the horses have hats.
One of the things I was most excited about experiencing was the
Christmas markets! They did not disappoint,
and I enjoyed checking out the different markets around town. One of the best parts was experiencing Gluwein,
a hot red wine. It’s not just the wine
that is fun but also the whole process of renting a mug for a small
deposit. It was neat and fun to see the
locals enjoying their Gluwein while walking around the markets.
Of course, I also really liked the giant pretzels! Plus, we did a little Christmas shopping for
the family. I was surprised at the
variety of each shop and the quality of the items. Such a great way to get in the Christmas
We continued our Vienna-cultured drinking by going to
several cafes. The cafés are so elegant
with chandeliers and velvet benches. We
enjoyed our cup of coffee and watched the Viennese enjoy their coffee while
reading the papers. The newspapers are
held together with wooden spines. It was
exactly what I pictured it to be in my head.
The desserts in the cafés are also amazing. The Sacher Torte was made famous in 1832 because
the king took a liking to it. There is
always a line to get in, so we waited 30 minutes in the freezing cold. The inside of the café is quite posh. The cake was delicious as was my hot
chocolate with chocolate liquor, which warmed me right up.
Continuing with our culinary experience, we also enjoyed the
largest and best schnitzel I have ever eaten.
The local joint near our hotel was packed, so we thankfully shared a
table with some friendly locals. They
are famous for their portions, so they even have a table in the dining room
with aluminum foil to wrap up your leftovers!
It was yummy as was our first Austrian beer.
Vienna is famous for its music, so we took advantage of their
economical ways to enjoy it as a local.
The first experience was attending Sunday Mass at Augustinian
church. This is the royal church where
the Habsburgs attended, and it is well known for its music at mass. We were treated to an amazing choir accompanied
by the organ. Everything was in German,
so we just followed along and enjoyed the music and people watching.
We also opted to attend the opera. There are 597 standing seats for each show for
10 Euros each. It is quite the steal! We got our tickets and were shepherded inside
to our “seats”. It was packed, but I
scored us a spot with a railing and a wall!
We secured our spot by tying my scarf around the railing. Then we headed
out to explore the beautiful building and people watch. We got a glass of wine and found a spot to
sit. The people were decked out. We saw
evening gowns and tuxes. We did our
best, but we were severely underdressed in our new sweaters and climbing
The opera was Don Giovanni by Mozart. We had a little screen translating the music
to English, so it was easy to follow along.
The music was awesome, and the story was funny. What an amazing treat to see an opera in the
famous Vienna Opera house.
It is a tradition to eat at the brat stand outside the opera
house after the show. Since we were
standing, we only made it through the first act. Afterwards we were starved so headed to the
stand. We both ordered a currywurst. The worker told us that the currywursts do
not come on a bun. I said, no problem and Mike said I’ll take whatever comes on
a bun. Well, the guy misunderstood us
and after a giant sigh, proceeded to slap the currywursts on buns. We felt bad making such a faux pas, and I’m
pretty sure he thought we were dumb. Oops!
I loved walking around Vienna as you are surrounded by
elegant buildings and store fronts. We
really enjoyed our daily walking commute to downtown.
In pure gothic elegance, St. Stephens Cathedral towers over
old town. It has a gothic exterior and
was completed in 1453. It is unique for
its south tower (450’ tall) completed before the church and all in the gothic
style. Most of the time, the tower is
completed last. I also liked the
colorful roof tiles including the Habsburg double eagle.
The interior was also beautiful. I think the church architects had a good sense
of humor. Under the royal balcony, there is a statue of the architect, supporting
the entire thing.
I especially liked the pulpit built into a column with great
details in the stonework. Wheels rolling
uphill with 3 spokes (for the Holy Trinity) and wheels with 4 spokes rolling
down (for the 4 elements of earth). Plus,
the designer is peaking out a window below!
To continue our education on the Hapsburgs, we toured the
imperial apartments in their city palace called the Holfburg. It included their extensive porcelain
collection which showed off the pure wealth of the Habsburgs. There were so many china place settings and
salt and pepper shakers! The highlight
was a table set for a banquet. The
center piece was over the top: all mirrors,
candles, and flowers – of course all gold plated! Each place had it owns wine and water
decanters plus a full setting of silverware.
We continued our tour of the Habsburgs’ wealth with a quick visit
to the treasury to see their crown jewels.
Crown of Rudolf II (1602).
Super fancy and looked like a helmet.
It was used as the Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) crown for centuries.
2,680 carat emerald that was never cut as the cutter was too
scared he would shatter it. It was big
HRE crown from 960.
So many giant jewels and gold!
On our last day in Vienna, we opted for a quick day trip to
Bratislava, Slovakia. The two capitals are
the closest in all of Europe, only 50km apart.
During the Hapsburg rule of Hungary from 1526-1830, Bratislava was the
capital of Hungry. This made it easy for
the Habsburgs to keep an eye on both kingdoms.
Old town was abandoned for years during communism and has just started to come back to life with shops and restaurants. After the fall of communism, it took many years to figure out who were the rightful owners of each of the buildings in town. We enjoyed walking around the town and checking out the UFO bridge. I also enjoyed the random statues!
Our time in Vienna was jam-packed with sightseeing, markets and enjoying the local culture. I was surprised how much we both enjoyed it, and we both want to come back someday. I’m thankful that Mike picked Vienna, even if he can’t remember doing it!
As you may have figured out from our last few blogs, the bad
weather in Spain drug us down a bit before a couple of great days of sun and hiking
rejuvenated us in beautiful Ronda. We were happy to see the sunny weather hold as
we visited Granada, our final destination in Spain. Good thing too because
Granada was a beautiful city to experience a pie (on foot).
Our first full day in Granada was Thanksgiving, which meant…absolutely
nothing (although Black Friday is a thing here). I was really hoping to witness
an American accost some Spanish passerby in a slow, loud voice, “Do—you—have—tur—key—on—Thanks—giv—ing—in—your—coun—try?”
Alas, I was disappointed and instead had to reflect on how thankful I was to be
on this trip with Sarah.
We did have a funny experience that evening, though. Granada
is one of the only Spanish cities that generally maintains the tradition of a
free tapa with every drink; we went out for a glass of wine that evening and
got a small plate of free salty fried fish bites. If you know Sarah, she was
less than thrilled with the fish part. I finished my wine first and ordered a
second glass…out came a slightly larger plate of fried sardines. A few minutes
later Sarah decided to have a second glass also…this time accompanied by a plate
of even bigger whole fried fish. I think I’m safe in saying this will be the
only time I eat three plates of fried fish for Thanksgiving Dinner!
Granada was the final stronghold of the Moors in Spain before
falling in 1492 about the same time that Columbus was sailing the ocean blue. Today’s
old town doesn’t always seem that old, yet the city still bears much of the Mudejar
influence in some places. Tio Rico (Rick Steves) notes in his guidebook the
mistake it is to think of the Moors as a separate entity to the Spanish…they
were in the country for 700 years (far longer than Romans, another group of conquerors
that we romanticize instead). Think of how many generations of people were born
and how much development a country would see in that amount of time. Moorish
rulers may have been driven from power, but 700 years of people didn’t completely
disappear from Spain. I thought it was a good way of changing my own perspective
as I enjoyed the fountain-centered squares and minaret-turned bell towers
After a morning touring old town’s mix of past and present, we enjoyed a different Moorish holdover—a good soak in the Hammam (Turkish bath). When we visited Turkey during our last trip, we did the whole process of being scrubbed and rinsed, a process that falls halfway between a rejuvenating spa experience and, um, waterboarding. This time, we chose to spend an hour moving between cold, warm, and hot tubs in a quiet, candle-lit, tiled and fountain-filled oasis. Sarah was her usual brilliant self and had found a great deal that came with 30-minute massages for next-to-nothing, so we left walking a little taller than we had in a month or so.
Our main reason for coming to Granada was the Alhambra, a famously
picturesque Moorish palace that covers 100,000 square meters of hillside overlooking
the old town. We had tickets to see it the following day but took advantage of
the afternoon sun to walk up to a good viewpoint for a sneak preview. It was
crowded with selfie-snappers, Roma/hippy vendors, and bad Flamenco singers who
passed the hat (propina por la musica?) after every single song, but the
views were fantastic and left us excited for the next day.
We didn’t plan to save the best for last in Granada, but it
certainly worked out that way. As with many of Spain’s top attractions, reserving
timed entries is the only way to ensure admission, and the Alhambra sells out
basically every day. Sarah had reserved tickets nearly a month in advance, and
we planned everything else around it, not realizing that eventually it would work
out that we’d see it on our last day in the country.
The Alhambra is the site of at least 7 palaces through the centuries
and probably also hosted a fort as early as Roman times. It was the last stand
for the Moors in Spain, and it is also the best-preserved major site from their
time because it fell to the Christians without bloodshed. In its heyday, it was
virtually a city by itself. Getting to it requires a grand parade up a pretty
tree-lined hill, which apparently is part of the former walled city’s modern
As with any important Muslim locale, water is a central design
focus. The wonderful Courtyard of the Myrtles is built around a lovely long
rectangular pool of reflective water. The buildings on the long sides of the
courtyard once housed the sultan’s wives (four max), while the mistresses (as
many “as could be maintained with dignity”) literally got the short ends.
Because women couldn’t be seen outside, though, none of them got to hang out in
the great patio like us. Another trademark characteristic is symmetry, which gave
the courtyard a satisfying wholeness. In a niche at each corner, we got our
first peaks at the stucco “stalactites” that appear throughout the palace; like
much of the palace, they were originally painted brightly.
The Grand Hall of Ambassadors was my favorite room. Basically
the throne room, it is the largest in the Alhambra. It is a perfect cube that
feels even larger because of its open design below a giant dome decorated as a
starry night sky, and effect achieved through 8,017 inlaid wooden pieces! If someone
needed a reminder of the sultan’s closeness to Allah, he/she wouldn’t have to
look far—“Allah is victorious” appears in calligraphy 9,000 times throughout
the palace, and a good portion of those reminders are in the Grand Hall. It was,
however, the place where Boabdil signed his surrender to the Christians and
also where Columbus finished his sales pitch to Isabella—two important historical
events that seem strangely unromantic for the grandeur of this room.
The Courtyard of the Lions may be the most popular sight in
the palace. Its center fountain features 12 lions, so it doesn’t exactly
deserve an award for most original name. Moors were good at math and
engineering, and the fountain was a good example that sparked the curiosity of their
Christian successors. They took it apart to see how it worked, and all the king’s
horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put it back together correctly again! It’s
actually only worked correctly for the past seven years. The rest of the
courtyard was exotically tiled with designs of vines, geometrical patterns, and
more Allah reminders…very pretty while also reducing heat in the hot summers.
Before heading out, we enjoyed touring the pretty gardens;
it was actually warm and dry enough to stroll around a bit for change. One last
fun stop was called the Room of Secrets because of its great acoustics. You can
stand in one corner and whisper into the wall, and your wife will be able to
hear it by placing her ear against the opposite corner. Seems dangerous to me.
It was a fun place to giggle a little before heading back down the hill while
trying to avoid those murderous falling tree branches. Seriously, though, the
Alhambra was a great exclamation point to our Spanish sightseeing!
With all that sightseeing out of the way, we wanted a final
night on the town before leaving Spain. We’d been trying to get into the most
popular tapas bar in town for the past 3 days at this point, but it is the most
packed place we’ve ever seen. Neither Sarah nor I are big fans of crowds, and
Spanish people seem to require even less personal space than the rest of the non-North
American world. Since half the town was at the Christmas tree lighting this
evening, though, we thought we might be able to catch it when it was just incredibly
busy instead of monumentally jammed. It worked out great, and we enjoyed a nice
spot big enough for two people to stand at the bar and enjoy some tasty del
Duerro crianza red wine with delicious tapas before heading out for the paseo
among Granada’s shimmering Christmas lights!
Spain did not quite live up to our elevated expectations, but we’ve also realized that those expectations were unrealistic for the last three weeks of November. Many of the things that appealed most to our personal interests when we originally started planning last year involved the outdoors—Basque shepherd country, mountain hikes or rock climbing, or maybe even some beach time. What we got instead were interesting cities and cultural experiences, a few disrupted plans and extra hours waiting out pouring rain and windstorms, two great days of hiking in Ronda, and a lifetime’s ration of jamon. Looking back, though, we had great experiences of some days and fun times almost every day. We may not have loved Spain, but we liked it quite a bit and are both happy that we went there. I don’t think anywhere else in Europe can give you quite the same experience as Espana, and that is not something that I have been able to say about every country here. For now, though, enough reflection…it’s time to move on to the Christmas markets and coffee shops of Vienna!
The next stop on the Raffs’ adventure was Ronda, a small town
in the white hills. We arrived in time
to enjoy sunshine and warm weather, which was a much-welcomed treat after our
days of rain in Sevilla and Tarifa.
Ronda is known for its cliffside perch with a deep gorge,
spanned by a historic bridge, cutting through the middle of town. It has a great strategic location to protect
itself from invaders. It is also a photographer’s
paradise as the cliffs and bridge get perfect evening light!
It felt so great to be in a small country town. Street noise was non-existent, with plenty of
fresh air and easy-to-pick restaurants as there are not as many options. It was the perfect location for us to spend a
few days. Most people only spend 1
night, but we opted to throw in a full extra day to take advantage of the
beautiful weather and scenery.
Speaking of places to eat, one of my favorite restaurants in
all of Spain was in this tiny town… Casa Maria.
There is no menu; you eat whatever the chef feels like making that
day. You get a few starters, main course
and dessert. Sounded like fun, plus they
do a wine pairing! We loved it, and the
space was cozy and small.
The food was incredible.
We started with asparagus, salmon with truffles, scallops, and toast
with tomato puree. The main course was
steak that came out on a hot rock so you could finish cooking to your own preference. Dessert was creme caramel. It was quite the unique experience, and I
highly recommend it if you are ever in Ronda!
From town, we could see mountains in the distance, and they
were calling our names. Public
transportation between the white towns is very limited so we couldn’t quite get
the bus schedule to work for us. We also
didn’t feel like spending the money on a rental car. Luckily, the TI in town sells local maps of
hiking trails that start from old town.
You can basically hike in any direction from town on a variety of rural
roads, paths and trails. They are well
signed and have a varied of distances and difficulty.
The first day we opted to do 2 shorter hikes with a lunch
break in town (luxurious for the Raffs).
The first hike led us south out of town on a single lane road to an old
Roman fountain. We decided to keep
following the path to see if we could find the Roman aqueduct on our map, but
no luck. Instead we just enjoyed the
Our second hike was to descend below town and walk along the
cliffs. We got some great views of the towering
cliffs and famous bridge. The cliffs
looked fun to climb from a distance, but up close they were loose conglomerate (removable
handholds, so no thanks)!
On our second day, we took advantage of the nice weather and
set out for a full day ramble. We headed
west toward the mountains that we had been admiring. We walked mostly on single lane roads through
green rolling hills. We eventually came
to a steeper hillside and a path that led to a summit with a tiny church and a
via ferrata. Darn, no gear, so no via
ferrata for the Raffs. As we descended toward
the little village of Montejaque, we saw a group of 4 soldiers hiking uphill fully
kitted out with big guns. It was a
little strange, but we just thought they were out for a training hike.
From here, we still had a little more energy, so we
continued toward another cliff band which we walked below for a while. On the top of the cliffs were huge vultures
that at first, I thought were people!
Once we wrapped around the cliff, we decided it was time to turn around.
We headed back towards the little church and saw close to
100 soldiers all taking a break at the base.
It was a little strange to see, but we just kept on hiking. At the top of the viewpoint, we came across 4
soldiers dressed up like the Taliban with big guns. It just took a few seconds for it all to
click that this was a training exercise for the group below. They gave us big
friendly waves to put us at ease, but it did get our heartrates up!
The views hiking back were great. It was fun to see tiny Ronda from a distance on
its cliff. It was such a great way to
spend the day, just wish we had more time to explore the mountains and do some via
We did do a little sightseeing in town itself including its historic bull ring. It was built in the 1700’s. It had a small museum displaying historic matador costumes and explaining their history. As part of the tour we were even allowed to walk through the middle of the actual bull ring. We had some fun imagining what it would be like to be a matador.
We both needed a few days outside the city. Ronda was perfect vacation from our vacation location. Exercise plus nature makes everything better!
Tarifa, Spain is known for two things: world-class kite
surfing and easy ferry access to Morocco.
Our original plan was to travel from Spain to Morocco for a whirlwind 7-day
tour and then head back to France. After
further research, we decided to go to Central Europe instead and just do a
quick day trip to Morocco.
We left Sevilla on another rainy day and took a 3-hour bus
ride south to Tarifa, arriving in the rain.
Tarifa is a tiny coastal town with a walled old town. The town is mostly shut down at this time of
year. Since it was the weekend, a few
restaurants were open and not much else.
Our plan was to day trip to Morocco the following day, but
we received an email that due to a big storm with 40 mph+ winds, the ferries
would be shutdown for the day. So, we
had a choice to stay in Tarifa an extra day or skip Morocco and continue to
Gibraltar as planned. We decided to stay
the extra day in Tarifa and hope to travel to Morocco the next day.
Staying in a little town with not much to do ended up being
a nice change of pace. We slept in, wrote
in our journals and even braved a few walks along the sea. The kite surfers were loving the high winds,
so we enjoyed watching them fly across the water and catch some serious air!
We also enjoyed the change of cuisine in town including an
amazing vegetarian restaurant specializing in Indian and Moroccan food. It was a nice change from the meat heavy
foods in Madrid, Toledo and Sevilla!
The following day, we were up early and at the ferry station
excited to go to Africa. Unfortunately,
the winds were still too high, so the ferry was canceled at the last
minute. We had 2 choices: we could wait
around for the 1pm ferry which may or may not go, or we could make the best of
it and go to Gibraltar. We opted to skip
town and go to the UK.
Since it was a Sunday, there were limited buses running
between all the coastal towns. So, we
high-tailed it back to our room, canceled our room, packed up and quickly walked
to the bus station. Two buses and 2.5 hours
later, we arrived in La Linea Conception which is the border town to Gibraltar. We dropped our bags at a hotel and walked 10
minutes to the border. It was the
easiest border crossing ever, as all we had to do was flash our passport.
It was quite strange to now be in an English-speaking
country after the last 3.5 months. Most people
travel to here to see Gibraltar Rock, buy cheap booze and cigarettes or as a
quick sunny vacation.
Since it was so windy, the cable car to the top of the Rock
was closed, so we opted for a minibus tour.
Our driver/guide was great and was constantly telling us the history of Gibraltar,
what it was like to live there and their current political news.
Gibraltar Rock is prominent as it dramatically rises from
the flat peninsula. It has been a strategic
military position for the UK since the 1700’s.
During a Spanish siege, they hand dug tunnels to provide better vantage
points for their cannons.
In WWII, they
expanded the tunnel network and built out the airfield. The airfield spans the entire width of the
island. As you cross from Spain into
Gibraltar, you walk across the runway!
The rock is also famous for its monkeys. They are not native but have been here for a
long time. The legend is that as long as
the monkeys live on the Rock, UK will control Gibraltar. So, they are well cared for by the
I enjoyed the views from the top as we could see 2 seas and
2 continents. We could also see the town
below us and how they have reclaimed land from the sea to expand their city.
The town itself doesn’t have much going for it. Main street is tacky gift shops and booze and cigarette stands.
We did enjoy eating at a pub for lunch. Mike enjoyed a couple British bitters and fish and chips, while I had a steak and ale pie and a cider.
After getting our fill of the town and feeling a little disappointed
with the day, we decided to head back to La Linea for the night. However, along the way out of town, we
stumbled across a plaza with a huge stage and a band running through sound
check sounding a lot like Coldplay. We decided
to stick around and see what it was all about.
After checking things out, we determined that it was Gibraltar’s Festival
of Lights celebration, and Coldplay would really be playing later that
night! Yes, this day just got way better!
We stood in the center of the square watching the local
entertainment. We saw a bagpipe/drummer
band who played a beautiful version of Little Drummer Boy. There were lots of kids dance routines, some
better than others. The local high school
choir was amazing.
There were even mascots walking around the crowd. We dubbed one of them Angry Hotdog and tried
to avoid him. He was funny looking and
had us giggling all night.
As the evening went on, the more crowded the square became
until there was no room to move. They
announced that over 3,000 people were jammed into this square! There were tons of families with kids, young
couples, old couples and a few other tourists like us. It was so fun to get into the holiday spirit
with all these people.
Finally, it was time for the tree lighting. The entire square was illuminated, and
cannons went off spraying the crowd with snow confetti. It was crazy and happy and cool to see their
whole community come out to celebrate!
After the tree lighting, the crowd thinned out which surprised
us as Coldplay was next. I’m sure the
parents were ready to get home with the kids, and it had been a long 3 hours of
local entertainment. I was excited to
have space again and get to see one of my favorite bands live! They put on a great show, and it was incredible
to have such an up-close view!
The show ended and off we went giggling as we walked across
the runway, flashed our passport and went to our room with views of the
Rock. What a night!
Sometimes, the best parts of traveling are the unplanned experiences that you just happen to stumble upon. We couldn’t go to Africa, so we went to the UK instead and got to see Coldplay. Pretty awesome!
Occasionally in our travels, we’ve struck up conversations
with Spanish people we’ve met along the way; they usually ask us about New York
(Sarah’s on her own with that…I’ve never been!) or San Francisco, although
Portland is surprisingly well-known compared to a few years ago. In return,
they always say the word Sevilla (Seville) with a sort of wistful gleam
in their eye…sort of like our cooking instructor in Barcelona when speaking of jamon.
So, we were very excited to come to this “city of soul,” a place with a few
grand attractions but also a place just to go slow and enjoy life in a shady
garden or sipping a drink at a table in a square. Sounds good? Well, maybe
schedule your visit before the middle of November, or you’ll be singing the “Rains
in Spain” under your breath as you sprint at a decidedly non-paseo pace from
one attraction to the next!
Sevilla is the fourth largest city in Spain (700,000
people), but it has a very compact and touristy old town. The city’s main boom
corresponded with Spain’s Golden Age (1500-1700) in part because it is where Ferdinand
and Isabella married, thus creating the Spanish Empire. While it lies on a
river instead of the ocean, Sevilla served as an ocean port for Columbus and
Magellan. Later, it served as a cultural stop for the wealthy and the
intellectual/artist crowd who enjoyed the romance of the city. Today, it serves
crowds mostly, but the flip side of the rains in Spain flowing down November
drains is you can still gain a sense of Sevilla’s charm without the crowds.
The center of old town lies between the Plaza de la Virgen
de los Reyes and Plaza de Triumfo, which pretty much merge to create a pathway
between Sevilla’s two main attractions: the Alcazar (Moorish palace) and the
cathedral. Both sites held importance for both Muslims and Christians in the
past, and I thought it was interesting to see two squares sort of merge to
connect them instead of each having one grand square to itself. Our first
afternoon was the one sunny moment we had here, and it was perfect for Sarah to
get some photos of the cathedral in good light. The Alcazar often has terrible
lines of people who didn’t reserve tickets ahead of time, and we noted the
number of horse carriages lining up to serve as Plan B for the 100 people or so
who were about to be disappointed as the palace closed.
From there, we just wandered a bit…one of the main treats in Sevilla. It has a reputation for being ridiculously hot here in the summer, so there are many neat little shady squares lined with bitter orange trees, tiled benches (which help absorb the heat), and fountains. What a lovely place to eat your lunch or read a book…okay, probably check Instabookchat instead…during siesta! Even by European standards, most pedestrian lanes are narrow and curvy, which also blocks some of the worst sun. For us, though, it mostly created a fun place to explore before focusing on the big sites the next two days.
Sevilla’s cathedral is the 3rd largest in Europe
and the largest Gothic church in the world. When it was completed in 1528, it
was the largest church in the world (more shameless plagiarism of Tio Rico’s
guidebook). Built on the footprint of the former mosque that stood here, the
cathedral would span two Manhattan blocks. The exterior is somewhat devoid of
classic Gothic statues, drawing your eye up to the many flying buttresses;
Sarah tells me these buttresses also served a structural purpose and enabled
them to build the church so high. Speaking of which, the Girelda Bell Tower (a
former minaret) dominates any other feature of both church and square.
Much of the interior is more notable to Spanish history
(Ferdinand driving out the Moors, two saintly sisters martyred by pagan Romans),
but there was still plenty to peak our somewhat “churched-out” interests. The
Tomb of Columbus, that magnificent imperialistic bastard/explorer, dominates an
entire corner of the church, adorned with appropriately imperialistic
propaganda among the four bronze pallbearers. His son’s confirmed remains are
also interred here, and they used DNA testing a few years ago to show
probability that Pops really is in the big box we all photographed that day.
Spain’s most valuable crown, containing 12,000 jewels and the world’s largest pearl,
sits in the cathedral’s treasury. The high altar rises 80 ft.; you have to
crane your neck to see Jesus way up high. It’s 44 scenes plated in gold took
nearly 80 years to complete!
My favorite part was climbing 330 ft. to the top of Girelda Bell Tower. If you’ve ever climbed the narrow, spiral staircases up a church tower and pondered your own mortality in the process, you’d love this former minaret’s 35 wide ramps. Originally, a mule-ridin’ muezzin ascended the tower five times daily to sing the call-to-prayer. Today, many more Olds can be seen enjoying the city views from atop this tower than probably any other church in Europe! Oh, and those views are quite spectacular!
I mentioned that Sevilla is known as the “City of Soul”. Part of that nickname comes from its reputation for great flamenco shows (Contrary to many cartoons of my youth, there were no pink birds dancing the flamenco). Luckily, we’d been training on the Spanish dining schedule and could now stay up past nine to enjoy a nice date night. It was an interesting hour-long show in a very intimate setting; we were only about 6 ft. from the stage (close enough to get sprayed by the male dancer’s freshly sprayed coif). Five performers—2 dancers, 2 singers, and 1 bad-mamma-jamma guitarist—performed two styles of dance. They actually improvise much of the show each night based on the mood of the dancers and the rhythm set by the clapping of the lead singer, whose songs often had undertones of a Muslim prayer but also the human passion of love or loss. The dance was energetic with rapid tap-steps; the woman making many high steps and skirt-twirls and the man maintaining his bull-fighter’s posture. I can’t say that either of us loved the show, but we both appreciated the talent of each performer!
Sevilla’s other main attraction, the Alcazar, was a Moorish
palace from the 10th century that was rebuilt after Christians
recaptured the city. The royal family still uses some of the more modern
portions as a part-time home. The best part of a complete visit is the royal
bedrooms section, but we were unable to procure a ticket online (I think Sarah
mentioned in her last blog that Spain hates our credit cards). We decided to
treat the day as a tantalizing preview for the much grander Alhambra we’d see
the next week in Granada. Still, though, the Alcazar proved to be quite
enjoyable on its own.
I enjoyed the fascinating blend of cultures in two very
different architectural styles. The Moorish level was decked out in what’s
known as Mudejar style: full of beautifully carved keyhole-shaped windows, colorful
tiles, and geometric patterns. The newer upper level, on the other hand, is more
subtle stucco with Corinthian columns, balustrades, and coats-of arms. The
entire palace is centered around the beautifully serene (even with all the
selfie-snappers) Courtyard of the Maidens. The Hall of Ambassadors featured a
cool half-dome carved to look like the stars of heaven set over a cube-shaped
room (earth)—a nod to the balance of Allah’s universe. At the same time, the
room’s update also mixed in calligraphic references to the bad-assery of King
Pedro, the Christian ruler who oversaw much of the renovations. The banquet
hall was the site of Ferdinand and Isabella’s wedding reception. It was decked
out with each family’s coat-of-arms and scenes of all types of humans and
animals partying. While you can only tour a small portion of the rooms in the
palace, the vast gardens would be a lovely place to linger all afternoon;
locals are able to do just that anytime they want…they negotiated the space as
public lands when they reinstated the ceremonial royalty some time ago.
While the rain did shut down most of our wandering, it would be impossible not to eat well in any Spanish city. In fact, we spent an almost embarrassing amount of time eating in Sevilla. Almost. Our favorite tapas bar was a locals’ place only a few blocks away from the cathedral but apparently too far for most tourists to stray. Every bar seems to have a ham man, and this one had an excellent artist; you wouldn’t believe how thin this mustachioed genius could slice the Iberian good stuff with his 15-inch carving knife. I haven’t done well with my Spanish during the trip; most people want efficiency, so they seem to prefer English with non-natives. It was pretty slow here, though, so I got to enjoy some practice, which made it even more fun for me. The other highlight (actually highlights since we used a torrential downpour as an excuse to eat there a second time) was the culinary school connected to one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the region. We could both get 3-course gourmet lunches with wine for under 40 Euros—not a bad way to spend two hours hiding from the rain! One last highlight for environment if not food was eating tapas in a bull bar; yup, we were surrounded by tons of happy tourists, a few waiters, and about a dozen mounted bulls’ heads. Alas, through all these culinary adventures, we found ourselves sufficiently indoctrinated to Spain’s number one rule:
The next stop on our Spain adventure was Madrid. We took the super-fast train from Barcelona and arrived 3 hours later to chilly Madrid. It was time to pull out the puffy jackets and gloves. Madrid was a bit of a whirlwind of sightseeing as we only had 1.5 days.
The vibe of the city felt much more formal than Barcelona,
but also less touristy. It was nice to
be forced to use my limited Spanish that I learned while in South America. It is fun to practice, and I do okay with a
few things. I haven’t screwed up yet and
asked Cuantos Queso, like all over Bolivia😊 It is
however a challenge when they speak back to me!
We spent the afternoon of our arrival with a journey into
the art world. Our first stop was the Prado
museum, which is one of Europe’s best art museums with over 3,000 pieces to
peruse. We took the highlight tour
learning about Spain’s greatest artists.
A few of my favorites are below and of course NO FOTOS!
Valazquez – Las Menias – Wow, did I
love this painting. We got a preview at
the Picasso museum in Barcelona and saw his interpretation, so it was cool to
see the original. I can see why he got
inspiration from this piece and painted so many versions of his own. I really loved the perspective of this
painting. It was like we were the ones
being painted as we glanced into the room of our observers. The way he was able to create depth and
interest was really awesome.
El Greco (the Greek) – He was
originally from Greece, but spent his life living in Spain. I really liked his use of colors and sheen to
create depth and interest in the paintings.
I enjoyed the realism of his paintings.
He was my favorite of the day.
Goya – We got to see many of his
works as he evolved from a court portrait painter to scandalous nudes to his
dark period. His most famous paintings
depicted Madrid’s failed uprising against the French in May 1808.
After all the classical paintings, we decided to continue
our journey into the modern art world by going to Centro de Art Reina
Sofia. Again, NO FOTOS, so I’ll only
write the quick highlights. As much as I
try to enjoy modern art, it really isn’t my thing.
Picasso’s Guernica – Wow big,
impactful and impressive! It depicts a
bombing on April 26, 1937 by the German air force to aid Franko’s take
over. Picasso painted this to show the
world the destructive force of the rising Fascist movement. In reality, this painting could be used to
depict any war. It was very impactful
showing the horrors and impact on the innocents. You could look at each figure individually
and then all together to get the full picture.
Salvador Dali and Surrealism – We
saw several of his works, and I think I might have nightmares after looking at
them. This was the period that you
painted whatever was in your brain. I’m
thinking Dali had some really dark thoughts!
I was definitely not a fan, but I am glad we learned about this period.
After all the art, we really needed some wine! We headed to a little wine bar to enjoy a few
local wines and of course a cheese/jamon sampler platter. The place had the perfect vibe with mostly locals. It was perfect for us to discuss our day in
the art world and also just enjoy each other’s company.
The paseo is an evening ritual in Spain. Families and friends spend time together
walking the pedestrian streets socializing before their late-night dinner. The streets are packed, and it is fun to see
them come to life. We enjoyed this ritual
by mixing in with the happy crowds on our evening walks.
On our second day in Madrid, we explored the city. I enjoyed the many plazas and the market that we saw along the way.
I also got to buy cookies from the nuns using a turn-style and talking through the screen. I had wanted to do this in South America, but it was closed. So, I was super excited to have the experience in Madrid. I got to practice my Spanish and enjoy the yummy half-kilo of lemon cookies for a few days!
The main highlight of the day was the Royal Palace. It was built in the 18th century
and inspired by Versailles. The palace
has 2,800 rooms covering 1.5 million square feet making it Europe’s largest
palace. The rooms are all lavish and
over-the-top fancy. As I ascended the
main staircase, I couldn’t help but pretend that I was a fancy guest attending
a royal event! A few of my favorites:
The Gala dining room was set up to entertain 144 guests. Each place setting was fully set and the table was gorgeous. They still use it for state dinners even though the monarchs no longer live in this palace. The chandeliers were incredible, and the space was grand. NO FOTOS!
The Stradivarius room is home to the only complete set of these instruments dating from 1650-1740. Each is worth $15M, so we were standing among $75M of stuff! There were 2 violins, 1 viola, and 2 cellos. They were beautifully decorated and were works of art. NO FOTOS!
Our eating highlight of the day was tacos! It is one of the hippest places in Madrid and
reminded us of Por Que No from home. We
lined up with the locals outside while waiting to order at the counter. We decided to sample each of the tacos and
enjoyed a plate full of yummy goodness!
After 2 days of Madrid, we were ready to move on from the government
head of country to the church capital of Spain, Toledo. It is a quick 30-minute train ride from
Madrid, and most people just day trip.
We decided to spend 2 nights here as a getaway from the cities.
The city is built on a hill overlooking the Tejo river. Throughout town, we enjoyed the views of the
countryside that surrounded the town.
The city is very intact with its tiny medieval lanes, walls and
churches. When the king decided to move
the capital to Madrid, Toledo was basically left alone–preserving its many
We enjoyed exploring the small town. It is a bit like a maze but so small you
really can’t get lost. Throughout town,
we could see Moorish influence for the first time with keyhole arches.
Marzipan, almond sweet, was invented in Toledo. The nuns make it and sell it through
different shops. The shop windows are
decorated with cool marzipan sculptures.
We got 2 cookies each to try. I
thought they were okay but not really my thing.
The main sight to see in Toledo is the cathedral. The entrance fee comes with a free audio guide. It was a good guide, but in a very dramatic British
accent. The way Tah-LAY-doh was said
made us laugh over and over while touring.
The church, built in 1226, is huge, and its footprint covers
the entire site of the mosque that used to sit here. Since mosques are square in shape, the
designers of this church had to change their designs from the standard long
narrow nave to a wide nave. The center
of the church is dominated with the choir and central altar, making it feel a
little crowded. My favorite part was the Baroque piece behind the high altar
added in the 1700’s. To help illuminate
the altar, the architect deemed it necessary to cut a sky light in the dome
overhead. I can’t imagine being the guy
cutting the hole, hoping the dome doesn’t collapse. It didn’t, and the result is awesome with the
natural light making the gold glitter.
We knew after leaving Kaly, we would have a bit of a
whirlwind last month in Europe. A faster
pace of sightseeing is fun, but also leaves us tired and behind on our
journals, blog and logistical planning.
To help, we try to add extra days in smaller towns as catch up
days. Toledo worked out to be a perfect
town for a catchup day especially as we had a very rainy and gloomy second day!
One of my frustrations with Spain has been dealing with the
Renfe website (their national train company).
For some reason, it is very picky about payments by US cards. We quickly learned that it would not accept
US credit cards but would accept debit cards.
But then after purchasing 1 ticket, it wouldn’t allow you to purchase
another one with the same card! So, it
was a battle to buy our tickets! It
turned out to be also true with buying our museum passes for Seville as
well. So although we had the afternoon
to relax, we spent quite a bit of time dealing with frustrating logistics! Oh well, there are worse things and places to
spend a rainy afternoon.
Madrid and Toledo were fun to explore and to continue to learn about Spanish history and arts. I enjoyed continuing our tapas and wine tour of Spain, and we are finally adjusted to the late eating schedule.