Spain

Girona; the Liveable City

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The city of Girona is a wonderful and relaxing place to stay, with a beautiful park, Jewish quarter, and cathedral. The bustling center is filled with shops and bakeries, and has an open market with local produce and gourmet selections. The SLOLerners loved it. We stayed in the oldest part of the city, on the main street in the Jewish quarter (Mom really outdid herself this stay) and we walked throughout the city every day.

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A shopping street in the Jewish quarter.

We visited many museums in Girona, such as the Jewish museum, the Girona History Museum, the Casa Masó, and the Museum of Cinema. The Jewish Museum, just a few buildings away from our apartment, explained the history of the Jews of Girona and their exile. The Girona History Museum is full of incredible displays of when Girona was still part of the Roman Empire and how the city adapted to the industrial revolution. The most impressive part of the History Museum was their collection of press machines from the late 19th century. The Casa Masó is a museum / tribute to the architect Rafael Masó. Our flat was in a building designed by this architect. His style of architecture was a beautiful mixture of the Arts and Crafts style, and the Art Deco style. The most fascinating museum in Girona (in my opinion) is the Museum of Cinema. The multistoried museum visit starts off with a short clip in the private movie theater, and then continues to three full levels of incredible exhibitions and hands on activities.

There is a park in Girona much like a small scale version of Central Park that caught our attention for two reasons. First, for the fantastic running grounds, and two, for the ice skating rink. The park is full of lined up Plátano trees (they’re not actually banana trees, that’s just the name) and is a peaceful break from the busy commercial / residential jungle. The ice skating rink is quite the opposite of the peaceful environment of the park because its jam packed with kids from all around the town. We ended up taking a trip to the rink and it was so much fun! Although, there were so many people skating in the rink that the ice was more of a slushy than a hard ice rink. Edie and I fell down a couple of times and we got completely soaked!

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Our day at the Ice rink!

During the end of our stay, we met up with a bicycle friend of Dad’s, Eddie Salgado (not Edie). Eddie is a traveler of Europe and South America and has been abroad for seventeen years. We walked through most of town with him, showing him around, and at the end of the day, he hopped on a train and headed to Barcelona.

To conclude our stay in Girona, this city is one of the first towns on our trip that we felt we could actually live in for a long period of time. We loved the local environment, and the city was not too big. This town is one that we could easily come back to and stay there.

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Girona
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Caga Tío: the poop log

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Caga Tío

Here in Catalonia, the locals have an ongoing tradition a bit different from old Santa Claus. They have inherited Saint Nicholas, don’t get me wrong, but their original tradition is way weirder than a fat man climbing down your chimney in the middle of the night. Tío de Nadal, aka Caga Tío (sh**ing log) is a hilarious tradition that Catalonia celebrates. We were lucky enough to acquire one in our apartment. The story starts by buying a log and, as they do nowadays, decorating it. Throughout the week, you feed him citrus, such as mandarins and orange peels until he needs to relieve himself of all the fruits. On the 5th of January, we beat Tío with a stick while singing this traditional song: (translated from Catalán for your enjoyment)

poop, log,

poop nougats,

hazelnuts and cottage cheese,

if you don’t poop well,

I’ll hit you with a stick,

poop, log!

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Delicious

At the end of the song, we hit him once super hard and check under the blanket covering his butt, to find candy, dried fruit, and small presents, all supposedly all shat from his behind. We could not possibly make this stuff up!  After our hilarious and delicious experience with Caga Tió’s poop, we realised that this is one tradition we would like to continue from now on in the US.

Merry Pooping!

Ben’s view of Barcelona

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Arriving in Barcelona, we returned our Fiat 500l diesel after more than 1,000 miles of driving since Granada.   We were back in a city with public transportation in abundance.  Gone are the sparsely populated roads and relaxing pace.  Barcelona is a big city with swarms of cars, buses, taxis, pedestrians, and lots of scooters.

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One of the palaces we saw on our first drive through the city.

Our apartment was on the 6th floor of a condotel located in the heart of the city center.  We were one block away from the famous pedestrian street “rambla de Barcelona” and only a couple of blocks away from the historical district called Barri Gotic with the Cathedral and old Jewish Quarter.  This historical area with its ultra narrow streets and alleyways was almost exclusively for pedestrians for dozens of blocks.  We have continually found it so impressive in all of the towns, but especially the larger cities, that the most vibrant and busy shopping and restaurant zones are without access by car.  They could have developed the best shopping in the newer areas with easy parking and delivery, but they always select the historical areas.  These areas have so much more character and charm than a typical shopping mall.  We typically wander these areas staring at the buildings and storefronts – most from the 14th century – fascinated at the tenure and history that they have lived.  There is a formula to the streets.  Every few blocks of narrow alleys, the “carrer” opens up and there is a plaza where the sun comes through and people can gather.  There are usually café’s in the plazas and frequently temporary vendors selling their merchandise.

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The pedestrian walkway of La Rambla

Our apartment also was conveniently located around the corner from the Apple Store of Barcelona.  The store is only one of a handful of Apple stores in Spain and it is a giant. With three floors and hundreds of people inside, it was packed.  Susie had been searching for such a store since the Alhambra in Granada.  She decided to see what was harder, the screen on her iPhone or the 11th century stone walkway.  See photo for the answer.  After making an appointment ahead of time, we dropped off Susie’s phone and they had replaced the screen in two hours.  Good as new (except for the cracked camera lens).

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The result: 13th century stone wins. 

We did most of the requisite tourist duties such as Gaudí’s buildings and the Sagrada familia along with the historical buildings, Cathedral, and a couple of museums.  But what seems to stand out most in my mind is the food.  We have been traveling this “jamón” crazed country for 6 weeks now.  We, as a family, have been eating meat less and less.  Being in some more isolated towns such as the farmhouse in Angles for the past few weeks, we have started to eat at home almost exclusively.  We will grab a pastry or a coffee while out, but our main meals have been home cooked.  In Barcelona, we were finally treated to some excellent flavors.   Thanks to Trip Advisor we found a wonderful selection of restaurants to choose from.  We went to a really cool Indian street food restaurant called Surya for dinner one night.  The food was amazing.  They served traditional Indian spices but in a more Spanish type of preparation.  For example, we had a tapa of Indian Tortilla.  Tortilla is a Spanish style omelet with potatoes.  Surya adds Indian spices to it and rolls it up and served traditional Indian chutneys alongside.  My mouth just watered remembering it.  We also found a small global chain called Maoz that simply serves falafel.  You choose whether you want it in a pita or a bowl.  That’s it.  They hand it to you and there is a buffet of toppings that you can add to your falafel.  It is pretty much a standing room only place, but you can make your way back to the toppings as many times as you wish – we wished a lot.  This was the best falafel I have ever had and the toppings only amplified the flavor.

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The gothic cathedral next to the jewish quarter. 

We only had a few days in Barcelona, but we enjoyed the vibrancy and the feel of the city.  Susie and I ran along the beach one morning and were impressed with the well-developed facilities and the ancient port that had all been spruced up for the Olympics back in ’92.   We are passing back through Barcelona for a night at the end of this week before flying out to Italy.  We are already debating whether we go back to Surya or Maoz.  If only there were a Taco Temple to solve our problem.

The Farm House in Anglés

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The Farm House in Anglés

This week was a bit different from any of our other stays. The flat we stayed in was a beautiful 18th century farmhouse five miles away from any town, which caused us to be fairly isolated from our previously walking trip and activity filled stays. We still loved it though. In fact, my family considers the flat in Anglés one of our favorite stays so far.

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The owners house (Cristina) is just fifty feet away

Throughout the week we ended up driving to our surrounding cities and monuments. Girona is one of the nearby cities that we briefly visited. I’m not going to write to much about Girona because we are going to stay there in the next couple days. Also around Anglés are multiple volcanoes that have the distinct shapes of cartoon volcanoes. A perfect cone shaped mountain with a perfect circular crater in the centre. In one of the (thankfully dormant) volcanoes we visited, located in a little town called Olót, my sister and I ended up meeting a group of boys who we talked with. I ended up learning a few things about a kids life in Spain. For instance, when I asked him what languages they were taught in school, he told me that they teach Spanish, Catalan, and English, even though the only English words I got out of him that day were multiple “what-tha-f***’s.

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Volcá de Montsacopa; the perfect volcano in Olót.

Though these day trips were quite fun, the highlight of our week in Anglés was the horse camp. Natura de Caball is a wonderful family run horse camp, where Edie and I enjoyed the brisk winter days. The three days that we spent there were super fun. Each day we would drive down to the camp, lead our horse to where we get them ready, and then ride. That was the first time I had ridden a horse since my family’s trip to a horse camp two years ago, and I loved it.

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We plan on trying to find towns and flats like this more often because this one of a kind stay was absolutely incredible.

Valencia ~ a Fortuitos Detour

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A snapshot from Googlemaps. Click on the photo to explore the city from above. Close up on the Turia River park for a real treat! Isaac is working on a new post that will describe a special surprise that we found in the park.

The city of Valencia wasn’t even on our radar when we were thinking of cities to visit in Spain. When we realized that our chosen destination of Benidorm on the Mediterranean coast was a soul-less overbuilt tourist trap, we got onto Googlemaps to view the area to the north, searching for a new destination. From overhead, Valencia looked interesting; it had a big port, a huge beach with a long and wide boardwalk, and, most intriguing, a long winding park that ran through the center of town. We found a good apartment near the port, and booked it.

It turns out this long winding park is the old River Turia. In the 50’s the river flooded the city, so they diverted the entire thing to flow around the city to the west.

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The Turia River in the 50’s, running through the middle of town.
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A tile on a building near the river, showing the flood level. After this, the city diverted the river to save the city from future floods.

The dry riverbed was turned into a 7 mile long, quarter mile wide park filled with pedestrian and bicycle paths, playgrounds, sports fields, and gardens. At the south end is the the most ambitious and impressive collection of museums and performance centers. They call it La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias. The buildings are impressive to look at, and are surrounded by shallow pools and stunning tiled walkways. The Opera Hall looks exactly like the Jetson’s house from our childhood TV days. The entire “campus” of pools, museums, walkways and promenades were all designed by Valencia’s famous architect Santiago Calatrava. After all these weeks of wandering around structures and ruins from the past, it was a shocking and brilliant change to wander through environs that seemed too futuristic to exist today. We felt like we were in a movie set or green screen. The photos are impressive, but as usual, they do them no justice. The scope and scale of this space is something we hope many of you can experience some day.

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The Turia Riverbed Park today. Miles of trails, gardens, playgrounds and museums. A City park that rivals any that we’ve seen.

Valencia is a very flat city, and it is a very bike friendly town with bike trails and bike sharing programs throughout the core. This was the perfect place to get the SLO Lerners on wheels! We signed up for the bike-share for the week, and rented a smaller bike for Eden that we could easily take up to our flat in the evenings. Each day, we would just walk down the street to the nearest bike station, type in our personal code, and take a bike out of the rack. We then had 30 minutes to ride anywhere in the city before either dropping our bikes off at another station, or just checking it in and re-checking it out to continue on our way. The 30 minute time limit was sometimes annoying, but the stations are everywhere. I must say that traveling around the city by bike made this city my favorite so far (ah, but part of my heart will always belong to Porto…). The Turia Riverbed park was the most delightful creation (would you believe they first considered putting a freeway through the space!!?!) and we rode, played or ran through it every day of our week here. The community certainly uses it too; We haven’t seen so many runners since we left NYC, and families were out in force at all the playgrounds or on bikes together. Every field had a fútbol game going on, and there is even a permanent cyclocross course in the northern section of the park (Ben only cried for a minute or so upon seeing a race going on Sunday)!

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Eden had her bike for the week. We kept hers in our apartment, and waited patiently for us to check our bikes out from the kiosks.
Riding in the bike lanes toward the Turia River Park from our flat.
Riding in the bike lanes toward the Turia River Park from our flat.

 We bought a package of tickets to visit some of the sights. We rode our bikes over to the Oceanogáfic, which is just like SeaWorld, where Eden was chosen to help direct and pet the dolphins. We rode our bikes over to the Hemisféric, which is a glass domed IMAX theatre. Then, on our last day, guess what?! We rode our bikes again, this time over to the large skeletal glass Science Museum that rivals San Francisco’s Exploratorium. The best part about all of these family Field Trips is the fact that we are in Valencia in December. That means we have the entire place practically to ourselves! We have seen photos online of this place in the summer, and I don’t think we would be able to navigate bikes in the crowds. Instead, we just put on our Crayola Coats and gloves and breeze around like we own the entire place. Our photos are picturesque without strangers in them. There is never a line nor a crowd to complain about. Now this is tourism I can handle!

Standing amongst the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias. The kids are looking towards the Hemisféric and the Palau de las Artes. In the foreground is a Planetarium, and the larger one in the background is a Performing Arts Center that looks just like the Jetsons house would have if it really existed.
Standing amongst the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias. The kids are looking towards the Hemisféric and the Palau de las Artes. In the foreground is a Planetarium, and the larger one in the background is a Performing Arts Center that looks just like the Jetsons house would have if it really existed.

Our Week at the Beach ~ in 10 Minutes

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After an active 10 days and 5 cities, we were ready for a long stay to relax for a while. We had hit many spots throughout Southern Spain in  Andalucía and La Costa del Sur. We thought a week at the beach on the Mediterranean Coast would be just the thing. We found an apartment in Benidorm just a block from the beach and headed northwest from Granada. We had a beautiful drive through the mountains with many amazing views of the cave homes in southern Spain. When we arrived in Benidorm, however, our week of relaxation did not start off well. We met our host and took the lift to the 9th floor. She apologised that she had not changed the sheets and handed us a bag of sheets still in the packaging (not washed!) and walked us through the flat. We weren’t paying close enough attention, and said good-bye. Only then did we realise that there were only two clean towels, but 3 dirty ones hanging in the bathrooms, with dirty sinks and toilets along with that! We turned the heater on to warm the place up, and immediately tripped the fuse. We turned off as many lights as possible, flipped the fuse switch, and tried the heater again, this time at a lower setting. Tripped again! After two more tries of this, the heater stayed on for a good 5 minutes, finally warming the place while we put sheets on the bed and searched for cleaning supplies to clean the bathrooms. We began to put groceries away when we noticed that the dishes drying in the rack were dirty too! Then boom, darkness again. This time the fuses were all still on, but there was no power in the entire flat. We were fed up and in the dark; dirty bathroom, dirty dishes, dirty sheets, dirty towels, no power, no heat!! We picked up our still packed bags and left. We can laugh about it now, but at 10:00 at night, we weren’t laughing. We went to a hotel nearby vowed to pay more attention at check-in!

Tacky and overbuilt Benidorm, Spain
Tacky and overbuilt Benidorm, Spain

Fortunately, our night in the hotel helped us realise that the city of Benidorm is just a bad case of tacky Vegas on the Spanish coast. The place is so overbuilt and filled with tacky bars and souvenir shops. There was no soul, and certainly not many Spaniards there. We felt lucky that we got out after just one night. We had to pick a new destination, and fast. We needed a place that afternoon! We looked on the map, and thought the city of Valencia looked interesting…

The Alhambra and Generalife of Granada

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My Family was somewhat relieved that our reservation to visit one of the most beautiful attractions in Europe was put back one day because it gave us more time to study up on the palace. The 13th century Moorish castle was ingeniously built with heated water (also used for pressurized showers) and invasion protecting zig-zag doorways which put all invaders at an extreme disadvantage. We studied up all night about the magnificent fortress and then slept in ‘till ten thirty, when it was time to head out. The SLOLerners roamed the streets of Granada until 14:00, when we hiked up the hill where the Alhambra was perched. We were greeted by a friendly security man who guarded a very old gate to the palace gardens, and then walked up a beautiful ascending trail full of autumn trees and mini waterfalls. As we arrived at the main gate, a view of three very differently aged buildings filled our eyes. There was a fairly large 16th century rectangular palace of Catholic style in the center of the grounds. It had really beautiful stained glass windows and an amazing interior courtyard. To our left was a huge 12th century fortress with a clearing in the middle. Inside was a footprint of the labyrinth of military barracks that used to be occupied by the Moors. To our right was the original castle; the main attraction of the Alhambra. A 13th century intricate palace designed with peaceful water fountains and white marble covering almost every surface. Most inside walls were decorated with beautifully intricate marble carving patterns. The main throne-room in the castle hosts a throne, but it doesn’t look much like a throne. The Sultan’s chair is a very simple wood and leather throne, and is about the size of a modern day folding chair. Edie and I had quite the laugh when we compared the really fancy thrones used in catholic rule to the Moorish ones. We noticed in one of the books we had read the night before that the Moorish had incorporated a few mathematical equations into the building. The mathematics that I liked most were the ones in the doorways. Each doorway represented an irrational number, such as the square root of two. This signified the infinite connection to Allah

After we had visited the magnificent palace, we headed for the old moorish community within the old fortress walls. It turned out that the maze like structures were actually the old houses, all worn down to only the walls. The surrounding structures consisted of huge walls with towers on every corner. The westernmost and tallest tower we were able to go up onto, and the views were fantastic. You are able to see all of the surrounding city and all of the mountains behind Granada. This view was not only beautiful to the Moors but was also very advantageous. Any intruders attempting to enter the Alhambra without permission could easily be spotted from this point. To protect themselves from invaders, the Moors also developed a zig-zag type shaped doorway to put any intruders at an extreme disadvantage. Apparently, these precautions were not enough, for eventually, the Catholics invaded the beautiful Muslim settlement and conquered it. Their mark; the palace in the center, can easily be identified as something that was not originally planned to be built there. Though the Catholics did tear down a portion of the Moorish buildings, at least they left the main palace and the fortress to stand.

Our final stop was The Generalife, (pronounced chen-eral-leaf-eh not general-life) a huge garden known as the “paradise on earth”. These beautiful gardens are full of un-native and indigenous plants and have a unique aggregation system that at the time of its construction was way ahead of its time.

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