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We go to London and visit Westminster Abbey

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The west entrance of the Abbey

        As we walked inside the Northern entrance to westminster abbey, we noticed that the style was very similar to a spanish gothic cathedrals. The only difference was that everything was fancier and much more lavish. The ceilings in the spanish cathedrals are made of soaring stone arches, but the one in westminster are soaring stone arches with paint and gold leaf on it. The tombs in the spanish cathedrals are bright white marble, but, the ones in westminster are white marble with paint and gold leaf on it. Basically, everything in westminster is just more elaborate and with more gold. It was quite incredible, and if you want me to describe it, it’s really big, really lavish, and it’s topped full with the tombs of kings and Queens.

The wonderfully decorated ceiling

        The tombs of all the kings and Queens of England since the 11th century reside here. The memorial statues everywhere give it an “old lady’s cluttered house” look. Still, each and every one of the tombs are unique and beautiful. Other famous figures lie in westminster such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and Sir Winston Churchill. Oliver Cromwell was also buried in the church but was dug up and hung after two years in the grave. Then, he was decapitated. The reason for this is because he overthrew the monarchy and died the “Lord Protecter”. Two years after his burial, the monarchy regained power and dug him back up. Poor Oliver.

        Near the end of our visit, the choir ended up starting a practice session. This isn’t just any choir though, this is the westminster boys choir, where boys around ten years old are invited to attend a private school just for the choir and sing in the church multiple times a day.

The Choir with the altar in the background

When we were done, we admired the flying buttresses and fantastic towers. The abbey has stood fast for 1000 years, and hopefully it will stand another.

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An Exiting Ethiopian Experience

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After 3 weeks in Italy, we weren’t necessarily tired of Italian food. Our hunt for the best pizza, or gnocchi was aided by TripAdvisor, tour books and local recommendations. We arrived in Nice, and one of the restaurants with the highest recommendation was La Ville de Siena, an Italian restaurant in Little Italy in the old streets of Nice. While we thoroughly enjoyed the dinner, the next night we were once again searching for a delicious and enjoyable meal, but maybe something other than Italian this time… On TripAdvisor we put in a search for vegetarian food and up came one listing for Ethiopian Cuisine with excellent ratings. Hmmmm, none of us had ever eaten this type of food, and we were ready for something different.

After finding the place, we immediately noticed the low seating and woven basket tables only 2 feet high. The colors were bright, and the smells were enticing but different! The hostess was so welcoming, and lucky for us she spoke excellent English. We sat at one of the low woven tables with a colorful matching cone cover. She explained the typical way of eating Ethiopian food: A large platter is brought out with several different foods presented. Everyone eats from the platter, which is placed on the woven table. The most exciting part for us is that there are no forks! The food is scooped up with your fingers and this thin millet bread similar to a tortilla or a crepe. We had green beans, spinach, spicy and non-spicy lentils, cabbage, chicken, and rice each cooked with its own unique blend of spices and additions. We happily tore off the millet bread and scooped up the delicious dishes until there was nothing left. The flavors were full and savory, but like nothing we had ever eaten before.

After we had finished our feast, we were relaxing and marvelling at the delicious food we had just enjoyed. The waitress had told us that her mother was the cook, and that she likes to come out and meet guests after dinner when she can. Lucky for us, we were there early in the evening, and the place was not so busy yet. She came out and sat down with us and another couple sitting nearby. We told her how much we loved the food, and she was so pleased to see that the kids had eaten and enjoyed it all as well.

The food, the environment, the people, the lack of utensils, the whole experience was a feast for the senses!

A really late post for Naples

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First, an explanation of our swift exit from Spain to Italy and a quick lesson on something called the Schengen Zone. When we had planned this trip, we learned that about 10-15 years ago, the EU established a zone within most of the EU countries in which EU citizens could travel freely between borders without going through customs. As most of you know, border crossing is a lengthy process of questioning and passport review. This Schengen agreement eliminated all of that by making border crossings within zones no different than traveling state to state in the US. The downside of this new agreement for Americans is that we are only allowed three months within that zone for travel without requesting a long-term stay visa. I looked into this process, and discovered that the countries wouldn’t grant us one unless we had an address and or itinerary to present, neither of which I had. I learned from France that they would let us stay an additional 3 months after the Schengen allowance was reached, so we understood that we had 6 months of free travel. After 6 months we planned to head up to the UK, which did not join the Schengen Zone, therefore allowing us an additional month before heading home in June.

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The Schengen Zone

Fast forward to early January where we were taking our time exploring Catalonia, planning a trip into Madrid for a week, cruising over to Salamanca and then San Sebastian before making our way up into France to cross into our second 3 month stretch. We thought we would get a stamp from France allowing us that additional 90 days, wander into Italy for 5 or 6 weeks, then head over to Greece and the Czech Republic before heading back to France, Belgium and Amsterdam for the springtime. Great plan, right? Well, what we found out was, France would allow us to stay only in their country, no other country would honor that additional 90 day stretch. While we could conceivably cross borders into these countries without anyone taking notice, we have two children in tow. If we had any emergency or situation where any official asked to see our passport, we could get in serious trouble. Plus, our travel and health insurance would not be honored. Being the responsible adults we think we are most of the time, we reluctantly realized that we only had three weeks in which to visit Italy, and Greece, Prague, Belgium and Amsterdam are out of the picture for this trip. Sigh…

So by January 10th, we were flying from Barcelona to Naples to begin our brisk “Giro de Italia.”  We landed in Naples and immediately hopped into a taxi. I was supposed to call our hotel for a taxi, but my phone still had a Spanish SIM card, so we just took the first taxi we saw. Big mistake! The hotel said the taxi would be a fixed price of €16. We are in the taxi with this loud and overly friendly Italian who spoke very good English to us. I immediately became suspicious when I noticed there was no meter on the dash… We realize later, once we learned the town that he drove us all around town, then dropped us at our hotel to the price of €38! Argh… It could have been worse; we have heard stories of people slyly reaching into bags and stealing phones, wallets, etc.

In any case, we had arrived in Italy, and if anyone has ever been in Italy, you know it is a beautiful country with amazing cities. We were a bit shocked when we dropped our bags in our very nice hotel, and went to explore the streets. Naples is a gritty, gritty city. The few trash cans we saw were overflowing, and there was trash everywhere in the streets. The buildings were dirty and many of them were crumbling. People drive like maniacs and stoplights are merely suggestions. Motorscooters rule the roads, and if you hear one coming (how could you not? They are extremely loud), you had better look out. They consider pedestrians flags on a slalom course! The people of Naples stay up late… or maybe they just don’t go to bed at night. Their voices and music (live and recorded) get louder as the night goes on. Remember that we had just come from two weeks in some small, quiet villages of Spain. This crazy, dirty, loud, and busy city of Naples was quite a shock!

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An average street in Naples

Now, don’t start thinking that I am Nelly Negative about Naples… There certainly is a silver lining for this city; namely Pizza! Pizza with crust so thin and delicate, slightly charred in places from cooking it in the depths of the wood fired clay oven, pomodoro sauce so fresh and bright red, medallions of fresh mozzarella, and perfect basil floating over the top. After two months of ham hocks hanging in our faces wherever we went, we were smiling from ear to ear with this Napoleon delicacy~ and for €3 a pie too! This, we had been dreaming about since we started on this trip.

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Di Matteo’s wood fired pizza, Yum!

Well, we certainly did not fly into Naples just for the pizza (thought not a bad idea, I might suggest to you). We really came to walk through the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum (See Eden’s informative essay on the two Roman towns). I have been fascinated with the town of Pompeii since I found a library book on the subject when I was just 8 years old. An entire town of 20,000 people was buried in a day with all of its contents (and many of its people). Archeologists have carefully excavated the town and found artwork, utensils, boats, tools, and even scrolls that were preserved due to their burial for 1800 years.

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An Overview of Herculaneum

Much of the artwork and artifacts that have been discovered are safely housed in the Archeological museum just a few blocks from the hotel we were staying at in Naples. We walked there the first day to get an idea of what was in store for us at the excavation sites. What we saw was absolutely astounding. Mosaic floors with  much detail have been carefully sliced out and lifted from their spaces in Pompeii’s grandest houses. They are carefully displayed in the museum for our appreciation along with statues, and frescoes that are amazingly beautiful. We especially appreciated one room in the museum that had an enormous model of the entire town of Pompeii. We could stand to one side and get perspective of the town in order to orient ourselves for our visit the next day.

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A Pompeii model

As Eden says in her essay, Herculaneum was a much smaller town, but was buried with a more voluminous pyroclastic flow. The initial explosion of Mt. Vesuvius was a giant ash cloud and wave of destructive heat. The winds blew the ash to the southwest, burying Pompeii on the first day with this fine gray powder. The second day, the crater collapsed unto itself, and then exploded from the pressure to the northwest, burying Herculaneum under 16 meters of earth. The result of this is a town that is not fully excavated, but is better preserved than Pompeii. Most of the homes in both towns were two story, but only in Herculaneum can you see most of those homes still intact. Some of the wood trim and doors were buried so quickly they actually burned to charcoal in their exact wooden state. These beams and doors are still there, carefully covered with acrylic so you can see their original form. The town of Herculaneum was much smaller than Pompeii, with narrow streets and pleasant coastal verandas. The excavation site is not coastal anymore, as the volcanic flow added about 400 feet of coastline to the area. There is a row of boathouses that was originally on the waterfront. Sadly, they are filled with skeletons of many of the residents that were trying to hide from the destructive flow that decimated their town. We were able to walk all around the town and in and out of many of the homes. Much of the town has not been excavated due to two major obstacles; 16 meters of earth, and an entire modern town that has been built on top of all of that new surface above. Perhaps someday, we may get to see more of this ancient Roman treasure.

The town of Pompeii, on the other hand, is almost completely excavated. This town was not buried under such depth, so its location was always known, with the tops of many of the structures above the earth’s new surface. The excavation of the site began in earnest in the mid-1700’s, and what an accomplishment it is! We walked all through the town as if we were members of the community. The cobbled streets with raised crosswalks are completely intact. The bath houses with coved steam rooms and lockers for clothing are still there. The Forum, or town square, is so grand and well preserved. The tops of the temples are gone, but the columns, pedestals, and steps remain. Many of the homes are open for exploration; we saw palatial courtyards and gardens, as well as street-side taverns with countertops and storage rooms. There is a grand outdoor amphitheater built on a hillside and a colosseum that we were able to enter and sit as if we had tickets to the show. We could see the extensive water system of aqueducts, street gutters, rain cisterns, and public water fountains at almost every corner. We were just blown away by the state of the town, there was so much to see! Isaac took many photos..

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The entrance to Pompeii
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Back in the day, water ran from these faucets twenty four-seven
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Ancient crosswalks
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The Pompeiian colosseum
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Edie has memorised the different types of columns; Ionic, Dorian, and Corinthian

After eating pizza every night for three nights, it was time to pack up our bags and catch the high-speed train to Rome. The grandeur (and cleanliness) of Rome was a stark contrast to the gritty streets of Naples. The motor scooters were also much nicer and quieter! Best of all, there was order in the streets, and pedestrians could cross safely at crosswalks. Sadly, we have not found pizza quite like the marvelous creations we ate in Naples!

Gulliver ~ The Humanoid Playground

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When we found the Man Mountain playground, it was our first day in Valencia since we had left the dirty dysfunctional apartment in Benidorm. We were looking for a destination for our run. The entire family had started running for this trip, since Edie has no dance instructor, and dad and I couldn’t really carry around bikes. The first few weeks were quite difficult trying to adjust to to the different type of exercise. Mom had already been a runner before the trip. Now we are all running once every few days for about three miles.

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We thought it was only an enormous man-sculpture

 

We were looking on google maps for where to run. In Valencia, there is a huge empty riverbed that has now been tuned into a beautiful park that twists all through the city for over five miles. The paths in the park looked pretty nice to run on, so we zoomed in onto the paths. An enormous cement circle with what looked like a huge man laying down in it caught our eye. We made this our goal destination.

As we arrived at the skyward facing man we were greeted not only by an incredibly huge sculpture, but also a huge playground. The sculpture was the playground. It was Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels. We climbed up the ropes that secured him down as read in the book, and saw that the coat tail and folds of his clothes were slides and the pockets were caves. For the rest of the week, Edie and I returned to play on Gulliver, the Man Mountain. We especially liked the coat tail, because this article of clothing just so happened to be the biggest and best slide we had ever seen.

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Top-left is the magnificent slide

 

Another thing that surprised us about Gulliver was the lack of safety on the playground. There weren’t any handrails or guards, and you could very easily fall off the structure and break your leg (it thankfully didn’t happen to us, but we’re certain it happens regularly). The Playground would never be allowed to be built in the US because of the danger of falling off, but that didn’t stop Edie and me from playing there every day.

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The Man Mountain never gets old

 

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.

Ronda y el tajo

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Ronda, when you first see it, you think, how did that city get there, who would have ever thought to plop a town atop a plateau that can only be reached by a long narrow road up to it? The Moors originally settled here way back when, but were eventually overthrown by the Spaniards, who expanded the town by building a bridge to connect the two very close together mesas. We had a blast walking around the town, gazing at the gorge and valley below, and hiking into the gorge itself. Our miserably freezing apartment was located right in the heart of the town with the bull ring on the right, and the extremely long commercial walkway on the left. We didn’t end up going to an actual bullfight, (even youtube videos were enough for my mom) but did visit the museum. IMG_1727The pedestrian walkway is perfect for anybody who lives off of beer, cigarettes, and designer clothes, but we had fun poking around anyways.Though the town had a charming feel to it, our apartment didn’t. The non-insulated building was equipped only with multiple radiators and some drafty windows.IMG_1725 IMG_1723On the nights that we ate home, we ended up hugging our lentil soup, while crowding around two of the space heaters with ski hats and down jackets on. Not only that, we had some trouble with the fuse; it kept on blowing out. This caused us to have to turn off the radiators whenever my mom was cooking. It was a very cold two nights.

On the second day, we decided to attempt to hike down to the bottom of the gorge, but we ended up finding something much more interesting than originally planned. An old abandoned flour mill, a house, and a water generator building, all operational up until 1917 when  a huge rockslide destroyed the roofs and foundations of the houses. Apparently, the owners of the molíno (flour mill) didn’t really care because they moved out of that place and didn’t try to repair it at all. The government hasn’t done anything to preserve the over-one-hundred-year-old house because there is nothing fenced off or monitored there.P1070705P1070710 The trails are overgrown with huge vines that block out light and make the area seem like an Indiana Jones movie set. There are aqueducts going through the houses that are still in use, if not a bit overused (they’re overflowing a bit). The whole place seemed like it was not really part of one of the most touristy towns in Southern Europe. We followed the trail, poking our heads into caves and abandoned houses. Every once and a while, a little “Wow!” or “Man, this is so cool!” would pop out of one of our mouths, but most of the time the only sound was the rushing water and the crunching of leaves beneath our feet.

Edie and I raced each other up the trail for winner-gets-a-euro-from-dad (I won by the way) and once we were all together at the top, we began raving about what we had seen.

The End of the World

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Cape Sagres is, to the people who thought the world was flat, the end of the world. If you walk out to the end of the cape, you’ll understand why. The sea seems to just… end, and the clouds form directly where the world curves out of sight, giving it a, well. end-of-the-world effect.

In the middle of Cape Sagres lies a 15th century fortress that blocked fired artillery aimed at the bunker there. The building also houses a small church about 10 meters away. Also on the cape are three sea caves that stretch from the 30 meter high cape down to the ocean. These sea caves were formed by waves corroding the rock of the cliff, and then the dirt/sandstone surface falling into the cave.

This end-of-the-world was an amazing trip and I suggest that everyone in the area should attempt to go and see it.