Thursday, July 26, 2007

Wednesday the Fourth of July - Madrid and Toledo

I must note that even though we were in another country, we were not without our American patriotism! I had packed two of the Old Navy flag shirts. I had a short sleeved one and a sleeveless one, figuring I'd pick whichever one was more appropriate to the weather to wear. It was hot enough for a tank top, so I wore that one and I offered L my short sleeved one for the day. So she borrowed it and we showed off the fact we were proud to be an American!

We had found a local tour guide to give us a private tour of Toledo in the morning. He met us at our hotel about 9:00 AM or so and we proceeded to get a whirlwind tour of Toledo. This was quite fascinating since there is a significant amount of history here. Toledo is an old medieval city and much of the old city wall is still in existence. The entire city is also built up a mountain so that gives quite the opportunity for some exercise. Everywhere we went was Uphill. Part of the reason the city is so exciting to learn about is the religious history there. At one time, centuries ago, Toledo was a strong mix of Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Until the Christian royalty in Spain took over and forced everyone who wasn't Christian out. If I remember
correctly, Toledo once had the largest population of Jews in the entire country. Now there are barely enough to consider it a Jewish community and justify one single synagogue. In an effort to erase all remnants of non-Christian residents of the city, all the old synagogues and mosques were turned into Christian Cathedrals. It was especially interesting to walk around and see old remnants still in existence from the old religions there. One spot there was a picture perfect moment to capture churches of all three religions lined up back to back. The angle was just right and looking up, you could see the towers one behind the other of each kind of church. And they looked much closer together than they really were.

Toledo is a fairly small city now (well Toledo proper is anyhow) and though it does cater somewhat to tourists in some places, there's not a whole lot of "touristy" stuff to do outside of the walking tour and visiting the Cathedral. There were some absolutely gorgeous religious artifacts to see though and some artwork by some of the most famous painters in Spanish
history, the most famous of which is "El Greco," who's not Spanish at all, but Greek. There is much to the story of how he came to Spain though and his rise to popularity, all of which was fascinating.

After the tour, our guide (who was wonderful. Extremely knowledgeable about his city and its history and very proud to tell us all about it), always thinking, took us to a small metalwork shop. Toledo is very well know for its metal working, especially it's sword-smithing and gold-smithing. Our guide told us that no self-respecting bull fighter would EVER buy his sword
from anywhere other than Toledo. The store we went to had a goldsmith there working on a small plate so we got to watch how the gold leaf is applied to make the beautiful designs you find everywhere over there. We watched for a little bit and of course being women with souvenir shopping on the brain, we went to town buying all sorts of stuff to bring home. Most of mine will be Christmas presents though I did pick up a couple small items for myself.

After we had shopped to our heart's content there (the shop owner loved us!) our tour was finished and our guide dropped us off at the train station so we could head into Madrid.

We got to Madrid about lunch time but weren't quite hungry yet so we hopped on the tour bus and did some sightseeing. We stuck primarily to the historical Madrid tour this day and saw many sights. We started at Plaza Mayor again (nice central point to get to everywhere). Of all the places we could visit we chose the Puerta de Toledo (Toledo Gate), Puerta del Sol (the
very well known Sun Gate), Jardin Botanico (this is the Royal Botanical Gardens), Museo del Prado (I guess you could call it the Louvre of Spain), Puerta de Alcalá (Alcala Gate). We just rode by the gates, but we stopped at the Prado Museum as that was the one museum that everyone absolutely has to see in Madrid and spent a couple hours there. After we finished up in the museum, when we realized the Royal Botanical Gardens bumped up to it, we walked through there. I'm a sucker for a good botanical garden so that was one of the "must-see" sights in Madrid for me. Unfortunately, we were not there during peak season for most of the flowers so I was a bit disappointed. But there were still lots of blooming flowers that I had to explore (and smell) fully. We had fun here posing at several different places with flowers making gorgeous backdrops.

By now it was about time to head back to the train station to hop our train back to Toledo. So we got back on the tourist bus, passed by several more sights (many more than I listed) until we got to the train station. After we got back to Toledo and our hotel, we cleaned up a little bit, dropped off our purchases, and headed out to dinner for yet more tapas. There is a slightly funny story to go along with this. I may have mentioned in earlier descriptions about this trip how I love sangria and was bound and determined to have a glass or two as many nights as I could. Well the place we went for dinner this night, they didn't sell sangria by the glass, but by the liter. L is not a fan of sangria but since she knew I wanted some she told me she'd TRY to help me drink the liter but no promises since she really doesn't like it. So I went ahead and ordered it. Keep in mind here that we were outside all day long in high heat and humidity and that though we did stop for meals that day, I never really ate a whole lot at any of them, and that our dinner was tapas, which is finger foods and not a lot in any order so it was a small dinner. So they brought the liter of sangria, L took one sip decided she couldn't bear to drink anymore, and left the rest to me. Well it isn't cheap and I really did not want to waste any of it so I just kept drinking it and drinking it. After about 4 or 5 glasses, there was still enough left
for at least another glass or two. (A liter doesn't seem like a lot till you are drinking it by the wine glass full.) By now I was feeling quite good and I was afraid if I had anymore the room would start spinning and I'd be in danger of getting sick. So I couldn't stand the thought of wasting the last couple glasses, but I also knew it would not be wise to drink any more. So L
took what was left in the pitcher and gave it to the young couple at the table next to us, who were very grateful for the free alcohol. I was quite tipsy at this point and was a little bit wobbly when it was time to leave.

So we had fun laughing at me the next day over my getting drunk on sangria. But boy did it taste good!

Next post, Thursday our last day in Madrid...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Day 3 in Spain - Tuesday - first transition day

I figured I'd better get more of the story written before all the details fade out of my memory and I can't remember what to write. (You may laugh at me but oddly enough I'm remembering a lot of what we did based on what I was wearing that day. I can look at the photos, see what I was wearing in different photos and that's jogging the memory of what we did that day. But hey, as long as something helps me remember. LOL)

Tuesday was our transition day from Barcelona to Madrid. We had repacked our suitcases the night before to accommodate all the wine and souvenirs we'd already bought so we could leave the big bags at the hotel we'd be coming back to at the end of our trip, when we returned to Barcelona. So we stopped at that hotel on the way to the airport (which wasn't far since it was an
airport hotel) and checked our big suitcases there. Then we headed to the airport. We had left early in the hopes of maybe catching an earlier flight to Madrid but apparently there was some sort of limitation on our fare we purchased that did not allow for changing the flights or even going stand by unless we wanted to pay for it. So we sat at the airport for quite a while and I got a lot of reading in while we waited.

We got to Madrid about 12:30 or so and by the time we collected our bags and headed to the train station, we had missed the train to Toledo for a while. We had thought we'd head there, drop our stuff at the hotel and sightsee in Toledo that afternoon. But though the trains usually run every hour, there are two hours during the day it doesn't run and we arrived then. We didn't want to sit around waiting even more so we decided to start touring Madrid that afternoon instead. We found a baggage check at the train station, dropped our stuff off and headed to the metro to go in to the city.

After probably a good half hour trying to figure out the metro system and the maps to where we wanted to go, we rode into town. And honestly, my memory of this day is a little hazy. I forget what all we did. Probably because I was SOOO tired that day after little sleep the night before then getting up early to catch an early plane only to find we couldn't.

I know we headed into town and stopped at Plaza Mayor. I had purchased City Cards for us, which got us free tickets on the Tourist Bus, free entry to numerous museums and the Royal Palace and Gardens, and discounts many other places and with a couple tour companies. So we stopped at the tourist office to pick them up and while at Plaza Mayor, we walked around the square looking at all the shops and restaurants. We also did quite a bit of shopping right off the bat. Go figure. Two women in a foreign country and one of the first things we do in a new city is shop! LOL But it worked out because we got almost all of our souvenir shopping in Madrid done there. And in my case, most of my Christmas shopping too. :-) I knew the only way I'd be able to afford Christmas presents this year was to make them the souvenirs I brought home for my family. Of course the kids will all get their souvenirs right away but...

About when we decided we were hungry, we found a little hole in the wall restaurant and got some lunch. Most of what was on the menu I could only make out a few words, but there were some pictures too of some dishes to help. I ended up ordering this dish that all it was is green beans and ham. But it was REALLY good! I don't know what kind of broth or seasoning they
used but it was "muy delicioso." L had ordered something that looked quite a bit like stew as we figured we could share each other's meals to try more food. We did that a lot over there. Ordered different dinners so we could try more stuff. Well after she tasted my lunch, L decided she liked it better than her own lunch so she too ordered some. So we shared her original lunch between the two of us and I didn't have to share my yummy beans and ham after that and neither did she. LOL

We hopped on the tourist bus at some point too and started touring the city that way. We decided to visit El Parque del Retiro that day and explore the gardens and sculpture there. I'm a big fan of parks and botanical gardens. I like to see what kinds of flowers and artwork is displayed in parks and gardens around the world. We spent a couple hours there. It was a nice way to relax and digest our lunches while we walked around. There were some beautiful fountains and sculptures all over the place and we didn't even begin to see the whole park. If I remember correctly, it's the largest park in the city and it's a significant amount of acreage. Of course I took tons of photos, just like I did everywhere. LOL

I had purchased a bunch of post cards earlier in the day and there was this one really cool looking building called Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) that I fell in love with from the photo on the post card. I had no idea where it was, since it didn't say but I had mentioned to L that I'd love to see it if we could figure out where it was. As it turns out, it is in the center of Parque del Retiro and we happened across it by accident. As soon as I realized what it was I got quite excited to see it. The photos I took didn't do it justice so I kept the post card for the picture. :-)

As we were walking in to the park, we came across what I have since jokingly dubbed the "Mickey Ménage Trois." All over the park were folks dressed up in different costumes doing balloon animals and such for a couple euros. In this one area there was a Mickey and not one but TWO Minnies. So I dubbed them the ménage and of course had to get my photo taken with them. One Minnie was greedy tough and when L paid them a few euros for posting with us, she handed them all to the one Minnie, assuming the three of them were working together. Well they weren't. So Minnie kept all the money and wouldn't share! And poor Mickey and the other Minnie didn't get anything! We got a chuckle out of the selfish Minnie after that.

After we had walked our fill for the time being and taken quite a lot of pictures, we looked at our watches and decided it was time to head back to the metro and the train station. (Well I think that was the last place we went this day anyhow. I honestly can't remember.) So we got there, and I was beginning to feel like an old pro on the Madrid metro already. As son as I figured the metro lines out, I had no problem determining where we needed to go to get where we wanted or switch lines. So we headed back to the train station (which is gorgeous by the way - they have a tropical solarium in the center of the train station with beautiful trees and greenery and either a really good sound system for playing animal sounds - it sounded real and not recorded at all - or there were real birds and frogs and such in there.) and reclaimed our baggage. We still had about half an hour till it was time to catch our train so I sat and read my book a little while we waited.

The train ride to Toledo takes about half an hour and then we had to catch a cab up to our hotel. We were way on the outskirts of the city, on the other side from the station. We were in a brand new Hilton there and it was incredible! Probably the swankiest hotel I've ever stayed in! And it was all free since we had our hotel points we were using. I've stayed at some pretty nice looking hotels on other trips to Europe but this one takes the cake. I took a few photos but forgot to take a lot of the ones I wanted since I was tired. LOL

After we dropped our luggage and freshened up a bit, we had the front desk suggest some nice restaurants for tapas and asked them to call us a cab. So we went off to dinner, ate our fill and came back to the hotel, completely worn out after the long day.

Next post - 4th of July

Sunday, July 22, 2007


I just now finished Harry Potter and I LOVED it! I screamed, I cried, I laughed, I laughed while crying... Fabulous!

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Spain trip - Montserrat, cava tasting, and good looking waiters

On Monday of our trip, I had booked a tour with a local private touring company to go to nearby Montserrat and see the monastery and then finish the day with a tour of a local winery known for making cava (cava is a sparkling wine, very similar to champagne). This tour was a whole day affair since there was a bit of travel time involved (at least an hour or so to Montserrat).
Our guide picked us up about 9:30 or so and headed off to two other hotels to pick up a few more people. Off we went to Montserrat though we stopped along the way for some photo ops. Along the highway up the mountain, there is a very good lookout point to see the mountains. They are formed of limestone so over the centuries have eroded down into some very interesting and unusual rock formations.
The we continued on to Montserrat for our tour. We were dropped off at the road into town so our guide could go park the van. This area is quite the tourist destination so there is a fair amount of things to see and do. There is a cable car to take down the mountain and an incline for the same purpose. There is a building there with a full service restaurant, a cafeteria restaurant and some nice lookout spots to see over the mountain. As we walked up the road into town, there are numerous local farmers there selling their wares. Most commonly found items were assorted cheeses and honeys. So we stopped several times along the way to try samples, all of which were quite good. Though L was not a fan of the goat cheese. I thought it quite good and very creamy, but she preferred traditional "cow" cheese.
Once our tour guide was back from parking the van, she led us into town, giving us the history of this monastery.
Long story short, centuries ago, a man had found a small cave in which he decided to place a black Virgin Mary statue. There are various legends behind why she was black and if she was when placed there. (I kept being reminded by a series of books I read in the past year, all about a group of women sworn to worship and protect the Black Madonna. Though the story behind the Black Madonna was quite different from the Christian story behind the Black Virgin.)
We learned all about how many years later someone found the cave with the statue and suddenly Montserrat became a pilgrimage site for early Christians and still is to this day. We also learned all about the history of the Catalonian people and how many of them do not consider themselves Spaniards at all and are working towards trying to request independence for the area to become the country of Catalonia. There is also a lot of history behind the religion of the people there and how several centuries ago all residents of the area who were not Christian were forced out of the country or put to death.
All of this we were told as we walked up to the monastery. This is still a very active monastery, with many monks living there and many more who pilgrimage there, stay for a time then return to where they came from. We walked past all the living quarters of the monks on our way into the church. The line to go in and see the Black Virgin (who is not the original statue but still represents it and people come from all over the world to touch the statue and ask for Her blessing.) was outrageously long and L and I opted not to wait to see the stature up close. We just went in to the church to see it and and view the statue from a distance. Outside the church there is a large courtyard with a circle in the center. This is an optional site for pilgrims to stop and say prayers and ask for the Black Virgin's blessing. I stopped here as the line was much shorter and entered the circle to send up a few prayers of my own.
After our visit to the monastery and village were complete, we all climbed back in the van to head over to the winery. I dozed off in the van but woke up in time for the winery tour. We went to Freixenet, the biggest and best known cava maker of the region. We went inside, watched a few short movies about the history of the family and the company and saw clips of numerous ad campaigns with a wide variety of popular actors/singers/etc fro the states who advertised the brand.
Then we took a walking tour of the old part of the winery seeing all the racks of wine at various stages of the fermentation and development process. This was quite interesting to see and there were lots of displays of old equipment no longer used. After the tour of the old part, we hopped a train and took a ride through the modern part of the winery. The contrast between the two areas was quite fascinating to see. We got history and current times all in one. And yes, both portions are still in use today, old and modern.
After our tour checking out all these huge racks and casks of cava, we ended in a gathering room where we all got to have a glass of the most popular type of cava sold here. I never realized how MANY different ways one beverage can be adjusted to give it varying flavors and all. Quite fascinating really. After we sampled the cava, of course we all had to go buy some before leaving! I bought three bottles myself, one bottle of the Royal Reserve cava and two bottles of one variation of their most popular kind of cava.
Then we all climbed back in the van and headed back to Barcelona. We got dropped off at our hotel long enough to leave our purchases in the room. Then we hopped on the tourist bus once again and headed down to Port Olympic again for dinner. We were quite early for dinner so all the restaurants were almost empty. As we walked along the sidewalk, we were stopped at several different restaurants in the hopes they could convince us to eat there. This is where the good looking waiter part of the story comes into play.
As we walked along, we got stopped at one restaurant where the waiter (or rather I guess he was more of a host than a waiter) stopped us and would not let us go until he convinced us to eat at their restaurant. As he tried to talk us into stopping there to eat, he flirted shamelessly with both L and I. This made me a little uncomfortable but it was kinda nice too since he was quite good looking and we were enjoying the fawning attention.
We were still itching to try paella and this place was actually willing to make single serving size orders of paella for us so we could each have a different one. Normally, they refuse to do that, but I think this place just wanted business so badly since it was a dead time of day they would agree to almost anything to convince us to eat there. So L and I finally gave in (the single serving size paella is what clinched it for us) and decided to stop there for dinner. Then for the rest of the night, the host/waiter/whatever proceeded to lavish all kinds of excessive attention on the both of us. Some of these Spanish men sure no how to make a woman feel good about herself! Of course we had to play along so we returned the favor and flirted shamelessly right back.
L ordered lobster paella and I ordered seafood paella after ensuring there was no lobster or crab meat in it. For some reason neither of those seem to like me very much even though they sure taste good. We also ordered an appetizer of mussels as l loves them and I'd never had them so decided to try something new. They were wonderful! I inhaled them as fast as I could and the two of us polished off the entire thing (which was quite a large serving - a full dinner for someone actually). I also had my first of many sangrias on this trip that night. I drank that with almost every meal! I love sangria and no where is it better than in Spain!
After we finished our HUGE dinners (let me say a single serving of paella is far more than enough for any one person for dinner!) we hopped a cab back to the hotel.
Here we decided because of all the wine we bought that we'd repack our bags so we could leave our large suitcases in Barcelona at the hotel we'd be staying in when we came back to the city at the end of our trip before going home. So we spent a couple hours reorganizing everything and resorting our clothes so as to leave as much as we could there. Then we went to bed since Tuesday we were heading to Madrid.
Next post... on the way to Madrid and our first day there...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Spain trip Begins...

Well I'm striking out with the work I brought home presently so I guess I'll start the Spain monologue. :-)
We left Saturday the 30th to head to Europe and flew overnight to Frankfurt. I got quite a bit of sleep on the plane ride actually, more than I would have expected. I had hoped to stay awake for the movie as it was one I wanted to see, but I was zonked out. We had a short layover in Frankfurt and made it to Spain on Sunday, early afternoon I think it was.
Got our luggage and found a cab driver to take us to our hotel. Apparently Mr. Driver does not like big suitcases because he was sure complaining about mine! (It was only half full, but it WAS big. I did that intentionally so I'd have plenty of room for souvenirs on the way home.) I couldn't understand most of what he said but it was definitely some griping about the suitcase!
We arrived at our hotel and got settled in. We were staying off the beaten path (free hotel nights make you do that on occasion. LOL) but still in a pretty decently busy area. WE checked in, dropped off our luggage and L was tired so she took a nap. I was wide awake so decided to peruse the maps of the city, metro, and tourist bus to figure out what we needed to know and where everything was.
After L woke up, we headed downstairs to go out and see Barcelona. Turns out our plans to rely on the metro were not going to help us AT ALL. ALL five or six stations closest to our hotel were closed down! They were doing some work on them so we found that would not work. We started to get upset until the front desk folks told us the Barcelona Tourist Bus had a stop right outside out hotel and went all over the city. Not the fastest way to get around (it's on a set path and stops at every single place on the schedule along the way and it runs in a big circle, so only goes one way.) but we decided that would work. So we headed out, found the stop (just across the street and maybe 50 feet down the sidewalk) and waited for the bus.
Shortly thereafter when it stopped we bought our tickets and hopped on. Away we go!!!
We rode most of the green route (closest to the hotel) until we came to a connection for the blue route (the one that was best for where all we wanted to go) and hopped on that one. We had our handy dandy earphones they provided so we got the scoop about everything we saw as we rode along. Rode all the way over to Olympic Stadium which was where we thought all the restaurants were located to get dinner. Turns out the Olympic Stadium stop is just that, the stadium, and there was ANOTHER section called Olympic Village (or similar) and that's where all the good stuff was. So we jumped back on the bus and rode to the correct place.
This is great too because its a double decker and the top level is all open. So we were snapping away with the cameras. Taking pictures of anything and everything that caught our eye. Until it started to rain and we had to take cover in the lower level of the bus. But that was the only rain we had the whole trip so none of our sightseeing was interrupted after this.
By now we were quite hungry so we started searching for a place to get paella. We found many places, but they only make paella for groups of two or more (Lots of work I guess) and we couldn't agree on a flavor to try. So no paella for us that night. I ordered a fish fillet which was quite yummy and cooked perfectly. And those waiters are PROS at de-boning the fillet in a few quick motions. I'd have never managed it that cleanly or quickly myself. After dinner, the tourist bus had already shut down for the night so we hopped a cab back to the hotel. We were both tired by now, trying to adjust to the time difference so we we both in bed by 9:00. Normal time for L, WAY early for me, the night owl.
next post... Monday.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

sad news

My Mom sent me an e-mail today that surprised me and upset me but she knew I'd want to hear the news. Even in her message she was telling me she was sorry to break the news to me this way but she knew I'd want to know. One of the girls I was in grade school with and was very good friends with back then, just died. She's had a bad heart her entire life and had open heart surgery very young. I forget how old she was, but it was before second grade even because she had the scar then I remember. Or maybe it was IN second grade. I forget exactly but I remember when we had our First Reconciliation ceremony, she chose the priest she went to because of how he was there for her and her family the entire time she was so terribly sick.
Probably 10-15 or so years ago, she was in very bad health again and everyone was worried about her. I haven't seen her since I moved to TX and we lost touch after high school, but I used to bump into her now and again at church or the mall or some other place since her family lived not too far from mine (10 minutes away maybe). After that bad period she had, she looked pretty good and seemed to be doing well, though she looked a little older for her age due to the stresses on her body from the heart problems.
She just died this week and is being buried on Saturday. Granted, I think everyone knew it would come eventually for her, and younger rather than older, but it's still such a shock to hear. She's MY age! People aren't supposed to die this young! Like I said, I haven't seen J in at least 4 years, but I'm still very upset about it. I wish I could be there for the funeral. We were quite good friends back in the day and I still have some pictures from my birthday parties she came to and parties that we went to. We used to go over to each others' houses to hang out and stuff.
I asked Mom if she was planning to attend the funeral or anything and asked her that if she does to please pass along my condolences to J's family. And I asked for their address so I can send a card.