Friday, May 30, 2014

When it rains, eat chocolate!

We woke up to the sound of driving rain this morning, disappointed that our plan to visit Parc Guell was dampened. But we decided to hope for sun tomorrow, and looked up some rainy day activities for Barcelona. We scratched a few options from the list right away (a feet-nibbling-fish spa? Not appealing), but soon found the ideal place to go, the Barcelona Museum of Chocolate. Sounded like the perfect place to escape the drizzle and enjoy one of life's simple pleasures. 
However, the museum showed us that, in fact, chocolate is not so simple. The complicated process of chocolate production is what made it a royal delicacy when it was first introduced in Europe (through Barcelona!) The museum included a fairly small exhibit explaining the history and making of chocolate, as well as some impressive
chocolate sculptures. My favorite part was eating my ticket - it was a delicious bar of dark chocolate!
The sun was beginning to peek through as we left the museum, so we had a dry afternoon to wander the Gothic quarter. Before heading back to the apartment, we stopped for chocolate con churros - just couldn't get chocolate my mind after our museum visit!
Next stop in a tapas dinner in the Gracia neighborhood - said to be a trendy area for the locals. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

La Sagrada Familia

We arrived to a rainy afternoon in Barcelona yesterday, so we really did nothing but eat and relax. We're in full vacation mode now for sure!
Today we visited the Sagrada Familia basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi. Construction began at the turn of the 20th century and is ongoing today. We visited there when we were first in Barcelona, and we noticed that they've made some progress these past two years. This time, we got tickets to go inside the cathedral. When we stepped through the doorway, I was overcome with a sense of sacredness. Light of many colors penetrate the stained glass windows and filled the vast open space. Columns stretch up to branch at the ceiling as supports of the many high bell towers above. We stopped in a small chapel designated for silent prayer that was free of the bustle and picture taking outside. Our tickets also allowed us to  closely view the two facades of the building: one ornately carved and representing the nativity, and the opposite geometrically structured with straight lines and representing the  passion. Gaudi designed the basilica with detailed intention to convey symbols of the sacred family and the gospel throughout. Below the cathedral, we walked through an exhibit showing models of the various stages of design and construction, as well as a peek into the workshop where architects are rebuilding models that were destroyed by a mob during the Spanish Civil War. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Where Sunday's still the day of rest

I've grown up in the busy American lifestyle of constant motion, and shops closed on Sundays are a memory told by my parents of their childhood days. But in Spain, this remains a reality. On Sunday morning, we slept late and had our morning coffee and toast before retreating back to our room for some down time reading and resting. It was a cold and rainy day, so we wanted nothing more than a lazy day after our busy travel week. We took an afternoon walk with Begona after the rain cleared, and stopped for some pintxos in town. Aside from the restaurants, the town center was closed and quiet. We walked down to see the hanging bridge - the only one operating in Europe - and walked along the harbor. We chatted with Begona and caught up a bit. She certainly enjoyed our company and insisted that we visit again before too long. We went back into relaxation mode for the evening, and then headed out to catch our bus to Valencia. 

The overnight bus ride was aided by a stop where we bought some donuts to get us through. Sleeping in spurts and arriving in Valencia at 5:30 am made for a sleepy day. We waited at the bus station for a bit before stopping in a cafe for a breakfast of cafe con leche and croissants. Still too early to check in to our room, we spent some time in the park soaking up the sunshine. Our hosts left a map of the city for us, and we figured out directions to the beach. Our travels became a vacation when we walked among the palm trees to the beachside restaurants for lunch - paella, the valencian specialty. After lunch, we spent the afternoon on the beach enjoying the warm and sunny weather. We ended up covered head to toe in sand because of the wind. Our night ended with tapas and "agua de  Valencia" (white wine + fresh squeezed orange juice). Then it was off to our bunk beds for a good night's sleep. 

Day 2 in Valencia was our sightseeing day. We got a late start after sleeping in, and headed to the old city. We entered through the original city arch and towers, built in the 1200s. We explored the narrow streets and ancient buildings and came upon a white decorated painted path that lead us to a building with a beautiful ornate facade. It turned out to be the museum of ceramics, so we went inside for a tour. The building was once a palace of a noble Valencian merchant family, and we learned much of its history through our tour. 
Continuing on the painted path, we ended up in a small square where we found a chocolateria, and stopped for chocolate con churros. Yum!
Tonight we made our own dinner, a typical Spanish dish of melon slices with Iberian ham. It's nice to spend two nights in one place before we go on to Barcelona tomorrow!

^paella de verduras (vegetable paella)
^agua de valencia and patatas bravas
^ hanging out with the disciples on the beach - amazing sand art!
^chocolate con churros
^melon and ham

Monday, May 26, 2014

Au revoir, France; bienvenidos a Espana

We spent a lovely afternoon in Biarritz, France yesterday. This charming beach town is a top surfing destination in Europe, and it was obvious why. The beach and shoreline were absolutely beautiful, and the waves were dotted with surfers, even on a chilly day. Since we only spent one day in France, we had a lot on our to-do list. First stop was crepes, which we ate at a square overlooking the beach. After a walk along the shoreline, we went back into town to buy chocolates. The delicious chocolatey aroma in the little shop made my mouth water, and the chocolates were so good that we went back for more this morning before we left town. 
After the chocolate stop, we wandered through the streets in the central shopping area, enjoying the picturesque European style of the town. Ironically, we decided to have dinner at an Italian restaurant. It seemed like a safe choice since we couldn't read the French menus, and we didn't want to end up with a plate of goose liver or frogs legs by accident. We made a good choice and enjoyed our delicious dinner of brick oven pizza and house made ravioli, topped off with tiramisu and coffee. 
We finished off our French mini-tour this morning before our noontime bus to Spain. Croissants were on the menu for breakfast, then we made our extra chocolate stop. We couldn't leave France without a fresh baguette, so we dropped by a boulangerie to get one for the road. Then we were off for the short ride across  the border to Spain. 

Nothing says "welcome to Spain" like cafe con leche and tortilla! Our bus made a 30 minute stop in San Sebastian before  going on to our destination in Bilbao, so we used the time for a snack. We arrived in Bilbao for a warm welcome from my host mother Begona, who I have stayed in touch with since I studied abroad here. I was surprised to see that this time, her dog had a broken foot! We settled into her home and visited with her for a bit before an evening out in the city. Now it's time for pintxos - the small bites of various types of food famous here in Basque Country!

Dublin in a day

Our last day in Ireland was spent in Dublin. We arrived in the late afternoon and went straight to the Guinness Storehouse. We explored the exhibits and learned how to pour the perfect pint at the Guinness Academy. 

At the end of the tour, we sipped our pints as we looked out over the view of Dublin from the top level of the storehouse. Famous sites such as St. Patrick's Cathedral and Trinity College could be seen in the distance. 

Dinner at The Merchant's Arch pub in the Temple Bar area rounded out our visit to Ireland with live folk music and a traditional Irish meal. We walked back to our room along cobblestone streets for a rest before our next travel day. 

After a wonderful visit to Ireland, we are moving on to the next adventure - Biarritz, France. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Killarney National Park on horseback

Day two in Ireland brings us to Killarney. Shortly after we arrived in town, we went on a horseback ride through Killarney National Park. There were beautiful views of the lake and mountains, and we passed very close to a group of deer grazing in a field. The deer are much less skittish when approached on horseback. It turned out to be a learning experience in riding as well, since I've only ridden a little and always western style. Our guide taught us to trot and post in the English saddle, which was fun! 
After the two hour ride, we walked around the center of Killarney to have dinner and check out some shops. Tonight we will head back into town for a beer and some Irish music at one of the pubs. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Summer 2014 travels!

Back to traveling again with Steph!

We arrived in Ireland early this morning and got moving right away to see the landscapes and views this country has to offer. We headed straight from the Shannon airport to Galway for our first day. From Galway, we took a day bus tour of the surrounding countryside and passed through Kinvara to County Clare and on to the Cliffs of Moher. Ireland is certainly living up to its reputation for greenery and lots of sheep! Spring seems to be a great time of year for us to be here as the plants are thriving, and there are many adorable baby lambs, calves, and foals on the fields. The bus made a lunch stop at a traditional Irish pub, where I dove right in to the cuisine and ordered beef and Guiness stew. What great comfort food to fill me up after our long night and morning of travelling!
We passed by a few old stone castles and out posts along the way to the main attraction - the Cliffs of Moher. These 800 foot tall cliffs along the west coast of Ireland stretch along 8 km, and there are pathways to walk along and view the spectacular landscape. The view was truly breathtaking, and the pictures simply don't do it justice, but I will post them anyway. It was incredible to watch from above as many species of birds flew among the rocky ledges where they nest. 
We were lucky to have the sun shine through for us as we walked the cliffs, since most of the day was rainy. The rain caught us again on the drive back to Galway, and flooding in the roads forced the bus driver to find an alternate route back. We ended our day with dinner out at a pub in Galway, called The King's Head, that boasts a lively history dating back to the 1300s. Now it's time for a good night's sleep before our journey continues south early tomorrow morning!