Posts Tagged ‘Spain’
Madrid – December 2012
Hard to believe it, but John and I have now been married for 11 years. I really mean it when I say that time has flown by. I don’t feel like we had our wedding yesterday. But it feels more like 2 or 3 years, not 11. And this is all good. Time to mark the occasion and spend a little time alone, away from the kids, remembering why we are together in the first place. Since John loves Spain, but still had not been to Madrid that seemed a perfect choice. We could stay in a nice place, kid free, and enjoy “la marcha” (nightlife) in Madrid for a couple of days. I could even show him a few of my old haunts from a hundred years ago when I was a student there at the Universidad de Complutense.
We stayed at the lovely Palace Hotel, just off of the Puerta del Sol and half a block from the statue of Neptune. The center of Madrid is always busy, but also very lovely, with tree-lined blocks and lots of green space running in the middle of many streets. Even though it was December, it had almost a fallish feel. Crisp, but sunny. We got there on Friday afternoon and after a couple of rejuvenating glasses of cava in the hotel bar, we headed out. They had recently turned on all the Christmas lights around the city center, including the huge Christmas tree in Puerta del Sol. Apparently the tree is different every year. This year it definitely wasn’t traditional, but very impression and colourful. After a brief paseo (stroll) and a crazy crowded dash through the Christmas Market in the Plaza Mayor, we decided to try a few tapas. It was too early to go to the cuevas just off the Plaza Mayor, so we first hit a small bar nearby. It was called __ (here’s where I was going to insert the name, but I lost the card from the place and can’t find it! Boo!!)____ and it had a small window next to the door, where you could see the bar man slicing up some jamon for a plate of tapas. In Spain (like in Italy) you need to choose whether you want table service or to just stand at the bar. It’s not a matter of a table not being available, but one of choice. At the bar is best if you plan to have a drink and a racion (small serving) and then move on. Table is more appropriate for a bigger meal. We had a nice glass of wine and an even better plate of jamon. We didn’t really chat to anyone, other than each other, except when I asked the older Spanish couple sitting next to us what size plate of jamon they had ordered. Then we moved on to one of my old haunts from student days.
Just outside of the Plaza Mayor is a street of restaurants full of a particular type of tapas restaurant: Las Cuevas. The Caves. I guess they are called this, because they resemble caves….stone walls, usually no windows. Each one has a specialty. One is known for its mushrooms, another jamon. But my favorite is the tortilla one. If you have never had Spanish tortilla, you are missing out! First off, it has zero in common with the Mexican flour or corn tortilla. It’s more of a close cousin to a frittata. Olive oil, eggs, potato and fried onion. Yum! I have made this for years for John and we’ve had it in lots of restaurants across Spain and in the States. So, he was no newbie. But he had never had it here. We sat at one of the small wood tables and stools and ordered up. First bite in, I could see the look on his face….”OH…MY…GOD…this is GOOD!” We ate and drank and laughed and tried to figure out what made this tortilla so much better than the rest. I have my theories, which I will share separately. Maybe in another post. Towards the end of our food, a group of three Spanish girls came in and sat just next to us. They had obviously been shopping and looked like colleges students. When the waiter came over they quizzed him on the prices, then had a private convo about what they could afford, before ordering. We never talked to them, but I was feeling a STRONG pull of nostalgia just looking at them, about my days living in Madrid and being a “studentskate” as my dad would say….the student version of cheapskate….because funds were limited. I told John that I wanted to pay for their meal and he whole heartedly agreed. He’s the guy who carries around extra umbrellas so that he can give them away to people when it rains, so I knew he would be all about it. We walked into the next little room to explain to the staff and pay out of site from the girls. The staff was a bit mystified, until I explained that I went to school in Madrid, a hundred years ago, and knew what it was like to be a budget-conscious student. I wanted to pay for them as an unexpected treat. They seemed delighted by this idea and we paid both tabs. But then they wanted me to stay for “besos” from the girls once they told them. This horrified me! I would be so embarrassed and so would John! We politely declined and fled the scene. Literally. We practically ran. Slowly making our way back to the hotel, we ran into a smaller Christmas market at the Plaza Jacinto Benavent. We bought some gifts and then decided to have a drink at this quirky outdoor bar, which was only there for the market. It was made up to look like a Tyrolean ski chalet, complete with fake snow backdrop and faux fur throws to warm your legs. It was 11:30 at night and it was PACKED. I love Spain. Day one was perfect.
Day two was so gorgeous and sunny; it almost seemed like October instead of December. We headed to the Prado to tick off a few Madrid must-dos: El Greco and Goya. The building itself is a marvel and a beauty, even if the art is not my favorite of the three great museums there: Prado, Reina Sofia, & the Thyssen. We tried to go to the Thyssen next, but a temporary Gauguin exhibit was causing lines out the door and the day’s tickets were sold out. We bought for the next day and instead hopped on one of those red tourist Hop On Hop Off Buses. While they are super touristy, they are a great way to really see a lot of a city in a short amount of time. Plus, the day was so gorgeous; we sat on top in the open air. It was so fun.
That night, John was still thinking about the jamon from the place the night before…the one where we stood at the bar. So we planned to go back and then hit a few more places for a proper tapeo (tapas crawl). But as we approached, the guy at the door saw John and greeted him like a long lost favorite nephew! Shouts, hugs, claps on the back. And it was not a sales technique to get us in (at least I don’t think it was) as we had been there the night before and saw the same guy at the front door with no reaction. He led us to a table, once John said we wanted to eat. As he did, the guys behind the bar had same reaction. Hey! It’s You! I was thinking, wow….did he leave some crazy tip last night? Just as I am about to ask John this, he leans over and whispers to me behind his menu “Do you think that they think I am somebody else?” “I was just wondering about that.” We had a lovely meal (even though I accidently ordered Portobello mushrooms. John’s allergic so we gave them to the table next to us) and thoroughly enjoyed John’s newfound local celebrity. When we left, our waiter stood on a chair and kissed John on top of the head, and announced the whole place “This man is a Marine!” as we left laughing. He had just discovered this, when he noticed John’s tattoo.
I did get to hit the Thyssen on the Sunday. I remembered this being one of my favs, housed in a restored villa of multiple floors. I also remembered that the art goes from oldest to newest, starting at the top floor and that I used to skip down the lower floors. The interesting thing this time was that I spent the bulk of my time on the older art this time, especially some of the religious art that would normally bore me. And it was fascinating! I guess things do change with age. Definitely your perspective. You have more of it. And if you are lucky, your budget. Same thing applies there. The final part of our trip I wanted to highlight was my search for paella. Not just any paella…..but really, really good paella. An internet trawl had led me to www.thetongisneverwrong.com and their entry about paella. So, we tried 54 Boulevard. Excellent. Definitely local. And the whole meal from good from starter to postre. On our last day, we ended up at La Barraca. A place that is famous for its paella (and high prices) that many people call the best in Madrid. Now that I have been to both I will say I think that the paella at 54 Boulevard is better. But La Barraca was also excellent. So it really boils down to budget and what kind of atmosphere you want. Boulevard is family, local, casual, and relaxed. La Barraca seems family-friendly also. More fine-dining in experience and décor. A little serious. But I would take paella from either one, any day! Please! Madrid, me mata. (And apparently, it is MORE Christmas than you, so there. – see below)
Since we had such a great time in Paris last Feb with Annie and Jack, we decided to go for an even longer trip this past fall midterm break. Knowing we were headed into a long, wet and dreary winter in Dublin, we opted for some last sun: Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands are part of Spain, but are geographically much closer to the African continent, lying just west of Morocco and Western Sahara. We opted to stay at a Starwood property, since we could pay for our rooms through a combo of points and cash. It also looked to be a good setup, with a spa for the adults, lots of pools, and a kids club that would really appeal to the ages 4-10.
It’s about a four hour flight from Dublin, but with no connections to make, it is quite easy. We got there in time for lunch by the pool. The weather was iffy, with several days being a complete washout with downpours. But we were saved by the kids club and the spa. Plus, I think Annie and I have limited expectations. Relax, don’t cook, don’t clean, get a few massages, a few drinks, and some fun time with our kids. That’s exactly what it was. Another bonus was that there were lots of other families there and by the end, our kids had made lots of vacation friends. This wouldn’t be the best place to hang out as a couple (at least not during school breaks) but with kids, it was brilliant. It ticked all the boxes for this particular trip: great kids club that included activities in the evenings, spa, great buffets, and a gorgeous setting. Many of the other families (mostly British) were very grumpy about the weather. For some reason, it just didn’t bother Annie and I. Yes, it would have been great if the sun had come out more, but I don’t think it would have made the trip any more enjoyable for us. Just our tans!
After an amazing trip to Rome for my 40th, with no kids (wahoo!), John and I did a quick turnaround in Dublin to grab the kids and head out on spring break. Since Ireland has the most ridiculously large amount of school holidays, they had two weeks off. We took advantage of this to travel Tuesday through the following Wednesday. This gave us an 8-day trip, cheaper flights because it was mid-week both ways, and John only had to take off four days, because of Easter. Win win. We decided to head back to Spain, since there is so much to see there and I have the added bonus of speaking the language. Plus, I love it. So, the plan was this: four days in Barcelona, 2 days in Valencia and then 2 days in a beach town just south of Barcelona, called El Vendrell. Because there are so many of us, we need two hotel rooms wherever we go. This can limit the hotel choices as well. Luckily, John is a Starwood member with some good ranking, so they tend to upgrade us, or at least give us a bottle of much-needed wine when we arrive.
We got to Barcelona late, arriving at almost 11. The three big kids did well, cruising on the excitement of the trip. And Noah was also amazingly good, considering he was up about five hours past his usual bedtime. The only hiccup was when the cabdriver accidently smacked Lincoln in the mouth with a suitcase as he was loading the trunk. Lincoln had bent down to retrieve the beloved blankey and the guy just didn’t see him. That might be a record….getting a fat lip before we even leave the airport.
We got to the hotel about midnight. Now this being Spain, the land of dinner doesn’t start until 11pm, it didn’t occur to me that we wouldn’t be able to get milk for Noah when we got there. But the hotel, a Sheraton, was located in more of a business area, not a tourist or residential zone. As such, there was nothing opened around and their own restaurant had just closed. I explained my dilemma to the nice African man who was putting in the extra bed and opening the adjoining doors for the room. He took me down to the restaurant, went in back and got someone to sell me a carton of milk out of the kitchen! So nice. And he wouldn’t even take a tip! He said he had a two-year old at home and knew how it was.
We spent the next several days site seeing and enjoying Barcelona. The weather wasn’t great, but better than what we had left behind so we were happy. The city has lots of attractions that kids are into. We did the aquarium, the chocolate museum (although some of the chocolate sculptures were grey they were so old. Not that the kids cared. Look! Chocolate Spongebob!), and a gondola ride all the way to the top of Montjuic. This last one has an amazing view of the sea to the front and all of Barcelona to the back.
We also had long lunches with lots of wine for me and John, so that we probably enjoyed the kid stuff more than normal. We were lucky to have a great dinner out one night with our Dublin friends, the Smiths. They were also there for the break, but were headed north for a few days on the Costa Brava, while we were headed south to Valencia. We had paella and jamon and basic merriment while all the kids made videos of each other at the other end of the table. Speaking of food, I was so proud that the kids decided on this trip that they liked patatas, croquetas, and the jamon, which they referred to as “bacon ham”. Who wouldn’t like “bacon ham”??
Saturday morning before Easter we were supposed to head out to Valencia. I had rented a car online with Avis, but through the American website. I got a great deal and had rented a 6-seater. Once I got to the Avis, it turned out that the car they gave me was a 5-seater. SMALL 5-seater. It was the same car I had rented, but apparently there are different versions. This Avis was a small rental depot in a warehouse area. All the cars they had there were only there for pickup for reservations. It wasn’t like the airport where they have tons of cars to choose from. This little thing was it. Also, because it was Easter weekend, there were no cars available anywhere else in the city. So, I drove the tin can back to the Sheraton, praying that John could figure out what to do. I just couldn’t see how the six of us (including a car seat) and four big bags and a stroller were going to fit in this car. I explained the situation to him and with a grave look on his face, he went down to the curb to see for himself. A few minutes later, he came back and claimed he thought we could make it fit, if two kids shared the front seat. With no bigger car available, the trains sold out, and a pre-paid reservation awaiting us in Valencia, we went for it. We looked like a clown car. It was like one of those wooden block puzzles that only fits together if you fit the pieces in correct order. Five very cramped hours later, we made to Valencia to the Westin there. On a beautiful little side street, the Westin was a true oasis. The center courtyard was done in a Moroccan style, with flowers and tall palms, and tinkling fountains throughout. Truly charming. We sat in the sun and had a much needed cocktail, while the kids blissfully watched Disney Channel in English. (The Disney Channel in Barcelona had only been available in Spanish.) I’m not sure why they were so excited by this….they’ve seen so many of the shows so many times, that they could translate it from memeory.
Valencia was a gem. There is a gorgeous linear park, which is actually a string of separate parks that was developed along the old riverbed that runs through the city. At one end is The City of Science, and amazing all-white complex made up of several different buildings, including a performing arts hall, planetarium, natural science museum and aquarium. We had come here specifically for the aquarium, so that is where we headed our first full day in the city. Kids love aquariums, no doubt. And I was interested in comparing it to the aquarium in Atlanta. It didn’t disappoint. It had Beluga whales, penguins, an aviary, and its own dolphin show. However, I would have to say that it was showing its age a bit. Also, it’s made up of several small buildings. To see the attractions you have to go down stairs or an elevator in each building and most of them are not connected to each other. So, it was a LOT of up and down, up and down, especially with a stroller. Per our custom, we decided to have a nice long sit-down lunch. There was a circular restaurant (again, downstairs) where you are surrounded by a wall of fish.
While the prices and the atmosphere were more along the lines of fine dining, it was full of children since it was smack in the middle of the aquarium. Funny thing was, the maître d’ was hilariously pretentious and full of himself. Not even in Rome, at my crazy nice birthday dinner, did anyone take their duties so seriously. Anyway, once we were done eating, we took some pics of the kids in front of the fish, which at one point caused Lincoln to tell John, “Hey. You already had your turn at the fish wall, Buddy!”.
On the way to and from the aquarium, we had noticed this unbelievable kid park, in the linear park. It had an enormous play structure built to look like Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels. The day we were leaving Valencia for El Vendrell, we made a point to stop at this park and play. It is a must-see if you are ever in Valencia.
It looks like Gulliver is a giant, lying in the sand, and everyone climbing on top are as small, by comparison, as the Lilliputians. You could slide down his belt, five people across and in fact, I saw several families doing just that. You could climb up his hair or explore his show. It was so very, very cool.
El Vendrell is a very small beach town just about an hour south of Valencia. It definitely is local, and probably filled with Spanish sun seekers in the summer. However, at this time of year, it was decidedly sleepy. We stayed at Le Meridien Spa Hotel. A beautiful property, right on the beach. But it had a weird history, which we didn’t learn until we stayed there. Apparently it was built in the 1920’s as a sanatorium for young boys from the city with tuberculosis. It was thought that regular exposure to sun and sea air was a good cure. It was run by an order of monks. Sadly, just a few years after it opened civil war broke out in Spain and 15 of the monks were murdered and it closed. I found this very grim and hoped that there would be no late night visitations from murdered monks. Luckily, there weren’t.
It wasn’t quite beach weather, but kids don’t care and they had a ball playing in the sand and swimming in the rooftop pool, which was blessedly heated. John and I also got to partake of the spa a bit. It included a huge pool with about ten sets of different jets meant to relax different parts of your body. The funniest ones were these three tall ones that curved over the edge of the pool like a half circle, about two feet high. They were labelled “cervical jets”. I thought this was hilarious. I think they meant cervical in relating to the spine. But still….cervical jets? It reminded me of another bad translation we saw, in Rome. On the spa menu, they listed one massage as an “Afterbirth massage”. I know what they meant, but still……I don’t want my cervix jetted or my afterbirth massaged, thank you very much.
Finally, it was time to head home. We jammed back into the car and hit the road for Barcelona airport, about thirty miles away. Last time we travelled out of BCN, it was a nightmare, so we wanted lots of time. Ten minutes in, we are approaching a tunnel, with a traffic message board over it. The board is flashing about an acidente about ten miles down the road. The traffic is deadlocked and we just passed an exit, but are now stopped too. Luckily, there is an insane lady behind us who decided to BACK DOWN THE ONCOMING ramp to get down the road below. In other words, reverse down the ramp against the cars coming towards her. John decides to follow suit, but wisely turns around so we are at least headed face first into our deaths. It was the only time in all our years together that I had to close my eyes, I was so scared. I would’ve been yelling at him, but I didn’t want to freak out the kids or make him swerve. Unbelievably, we made it down to the other road, where there was no delay, just lots of fast-moving cars and headed for BCN on back roads. Luckily, there was a lot to see on the back roads, including numerous signs pointing to a town called Peniscola. Not Pensacola. Peniscola. Which led to tons of jokes about penis cola and butt cola and so on and so on. Thank God for potty humour on road trips, with no DVD player or electronics. It reminded me of road trips when I was a kid. We spent hours on such diversions. Until my mom couldn’t take it anymore and gave us all Dramamine so we would fall asleep. Hmm. I wonder where I can get my hands on some Dramamine for next time……