Monday, July 23, 2012

Toledo, Spain: a not so hidden gem

Holy Toledo is right! What a beautiful city.
We first got a glimpse of the city from the taxi on the way out of the train station.  It's perched up on the top of a hill and offers an Alcazar and many cathedrals and church spires for a skyline.

For those arriving to Toledo with luggage, if you want to do some heavy cardio by lugging your bags up a hill and through narrow and cobblestone roads, be my guest, but I much preferred paying a taxi to drive us up the hill for 5E and then walk the streets unencumbered. Especially given that the digital readout on an outside thermometer showed us that it was 43 degrees Celsius upon our arrival.

Our Hotel, Las Conchas, our room was right beside the H
Starved as usual, we tried a little restaurant right around the corner from our hotel.  Meson de la Posta felt like a Spanish restaurant so we ordered a Toledonian dish Carcarmusas, which is like a stew, with dos cervesas.

Inside the Meson de la Posta, check out the bull on the wall!
 We walked the labyrinth of streets and quickly found our way to plaza Zocodover and then decided to make out way to the walls of the city and we ended up walking along below the wall. Such a beautiful view!

I walked back up the hill and along the maze of streets until I found the beautiful St-Mary's Cathedral. What a beautiful cathedral inside and out!  It was impressive to see so much investment and money that went into such a big beautiful church from a relatively small city.  You can understand why Toledo remained the capital of Spain for a long time.  It was definitely the religious epicentre.

Toledo's Alcazar

Toledo's St-Mary's cathedral

Toledo's crest, as seen on the sides of buildings and buses.

Inside Toledo's Cathedral

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Segovia, Spain

Segovia, prenounced Say-Goh-via with the emphasis on the GO, is also just out of Madrid to the north west.
I had heard a lot of good things about Segovia before even going to Spain.  A colleague had talked about the Roman aqueduct; the Alcazar but mostly the ‘cocchinillo asado’ (roast suckling pig). 
Unfortunately for me, yesterday’s tour of Avilà and our strolling late in Madrid lead to some pretty awful blisters on the balls of both of my feet.  So basically every step I took in Segovia was painful.  That being said, I really enjoyed our visit.  The Roman aqueduct really is impressive.  I believe it’s the only one of it’s kind remaining and from what I overheard from an English speaking guide it seems there are some left underground but this is the only one left at this height.
As for Alcazar, the castle really is Disney-esque.  I was a little less amazed since it’s been rebuilt and renovated quite a few times over the last few centuries so though you get a sense of what it was it wasn’t as impressive as it could have been. 
Segovia's Alcazar
Now for the cocchinillo, the "I would be a vegetarian if I had to hunt" in me was a little terrified of the thought of a full roasted piglet on a platter on my table but in the end, we ordered a quarter pig, so I only had to deal with a pig foot.  Josée was nice enough to serve me so that I didn’t have to look at the pig and I have to admit that it was absolutely delicious, moist, tender and flavourful.  We hate at a small restaurant called Meson Juan Jimeno on the main street leaving the Alcazar. I definitely recommend it.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sipping Sangria at a terrace in Plaza Mayor as we waited for our 8pm bus. Now what happened next, was another first. Our bus broke down about 15 minutes out of Segovia.  We didn’t really understand what was happening, the bus came to a stop, then the Police showed up and the bus was pushed out of the roundabout and down a little hill to the side of the road.  The police told us we could get off the bus and the thirty of us sat on the side of the road looking on as the driver looked at the engine and the transmission and scratched his head.  My Spanish is passable, I understand when people speak slowly and when I understand the context, I had no idea what was being said.  What I heard was another bus in twenty to thirty minutes and sure enough a new bus came by to pick us up.  All’s well that ends well and I can honestly say I was never scared nor frustrated, we had nowhere else to be but Madrid since we’re on vacation so we laughed and read and played games on our phones.  Plus one of the police was quite cute so he was fun to look at!
Segovia's cathedral as seen from Alcazar

Our broken bus and police escort

Avilà, Spain: walled city

Avilà is a one hour train ride side trip from Madrid.  Its claims to fame are its medieval walls; it’s the birthplace of Saint Theresa and Yema desert treats made by the nuns.

Like with the country in general in mid-July, Avilà is incredibly hot at midday as the only shade to be found comes from the buildings depending on the angle of the sun! Avilà’s walls reminded me of the little town of Castellino in Italy. Though it seems that built in 1100, Avilà’s walls are Spain’s oldest, most well preserved and most complete.

The first view of the walls after the 10 minute walk from the train station
Main gate

 I would recommend a few hours stopover in Avila if you're in the area. By the way, as for Yemas, the famous desert, we bought some at the nun's bakery and had some on the way home.  I'm not sure if we bought the wrong thing but they are litterally a fried egg yolk covered in sugar.  It's not bad, but it has a weird texture and wasn't what I was expecting at all!

Madrid, another city that never sleeps

Madrid is the city where I quickly discovered that you have to learn to pace yourself. It’s incredibly hot, 37 or 38°C before the humidex and at midnight it’s still over 30!  Also, Spaniards seem to come to life around 5 in the evening, have dinner around 10 or 11 and at midnight are still walking the streets with young children. The heat is exhausting and even with breaks during the day, you really either need to get a very late start or you need to siesta in the middle of the afternoon as it’s quite easy to get into the rhythm of eating late and staying up late.

The Royal Palace

I can’t say Madrid is impressive because of its monuments.  The Royal Palace is nice but it’s not Versailles. After the Royal Palace we did the hop on, hop off bus.  Though, there are quite a few gates, I can’t say that it rivals Barcelona’s architecture and its sheer number of monuments.  We did, however, take the time to visit Real Madrid’s Stadium Bernabeu.  Our tour included access to the stadium seating at various levels, the pitch, a trophy room, the player’s bench and the locker room.  It was quite interesting to be able to see all the trophies and to discover that Real Madrid was named the best team of the 20th century by FIFA.
On the pitch

We had a great late night at a place called Bulev’art where Heineken is 6 for 5E! Even at 3am there are still many people walking the streets.  It’s been great but exhausting.
At Mile 0, the center of Spain
We tried a great restaurant yesterday that was recommended in the guidebook called El Caldero where we had a great chicken and vegetable Spanish rice dish which we had with the fantastic house Sangria.  They served us a digestif called Karlova which is a caramel vodka drink!  It was fabulous.  If ever you’re in Madrid near Puerta del Sol and Plaza Santa Ana look for this restaurant you won’t regret it.
Speaking of Puerta del Sol, I stood at mile ‘0’ which, according to the, plaque in the square, marks the spot for the center of Spain. 

So if ever in Madrid, enjoy the strolls through the streets, enjoy the cooler evenings and nights, grab a spot on a terasse to people watch. Or, like me, you can enjoy listening to a guy following you along down the street, telling you how beautiful you are and how much he would like to come to Canada ;)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Barcelona, a city not unlike Montreal

We had 2 days in Barcelona, well 1 full and two half days including the arrival and departure days.  I didn’t know much about the city besides the fact that it is in a region called Catalunya which considers itself a distinct society within Spain much like Quebec.  There are two official languages; Catalan and Spanish.  Catalan is like a Spanish version of French, for example please is si vos plaus, closer to s’il vous plait then por favore.

At my last blog, I posted that we were going out on the tourist bus; we caught the red line and enjoyed the city from the top of the open double decker was really starting to sink in that A-I’m on vacation and B- how wonderful it is to be in Barcelona. 

Our first jump off was at Place d’Espanya. It was the setting for the 1929 world fair as well as the about our whirlwind first afternoon and evening. 1992 Olympics. Next stop for us was the Teleferic de Montjuic which brought us up Montjuic (about the same size as Mont Royal it would seem to me, where we got to visit the castle where we enjoyed some wonderful views of Barcelona. Since we got on the last bus tour, we hopped off at the stop at the bottom of the Ramblas to that we could stroll it and find a place to eat dinner.  We went to a restaurant called La Fonda recommended by Rick Steves.  We had a great meal including wine and desert for 16.5E.  After dinner, exhausted, we made our way up the Rablas as were amazed but the sheet number of people out even close to midnight! So much for our early nigh!

Saturday we were up and out for about 11:00 and headed back to the touristic bus.  We got on at Placa de Catalunya and made our way North.  The plan was to head to Barcelona’s most iconic landmark, Gaudi’s Segrega Familia.  When we got there, we headed for the ticket line and were dismayed to see that the line to buy tickets wrapped around three sides of the Church.  Now I have to mention that my trusty Rick Steves’ guidebook had recommended that we skip the line by buying our tickets online, I don’t know want possessed me not the take the advice especially given my experience skipping the 4 hour line at the Coliseum thanks to the same guidebook.  Anyhow, we decided to continue on the route and loop back to the hotel, buy the tickets and go back late afternoon.
Me in front of the Passion Facade of Segrega Familia

Our next stop was at Parc Güell, another of Gaudi’s creations.  It was meant to be a 30 acres, park-like gated community.  The project never took off and the 15 acres that contain Gaudi’s work were donated back to the city by the Güell family.  I didn’t think I would be a Gaudi fan, but I can now appreciate his use of engineering and his desire to replicate what is seen in nature.

Main Entrance at Park Gruell

We had a nice lunch sitting on a terrace just outside the park and had sangria, Spanish ham sandwiches and a salad.  What a wonderful way to take a breather!

Our next hop was at the Barcelona futball stadium, the largest in Europe, with a capacity of 100,000 and home to Club Barca.  Europeen Soccer is currently on hiatus due to the Euro Cup and the Olympics in two weeks. So the only way we were going to see the inside of the stadium was to buy a 23E tour that lasted 1.5 hours.  So we skipped given that it was already late afternoon. 

Back at the hotel Reding for 6pm, I jumped on the computer to buy our Segrega tickets and saw that the last pre-purchased entrance is at 7pm.  Since it didn’t leave us enough time we adapted our plans We headed to the beach!  I love any excuse to go to the beach, so we spent the last 2 hours of the sun sitting on the beach, I went for a quick dip and read while Josee rode the waves for a while. 

We did manage to go home to change and then headed back out at midnight to enjoy the Barcelona nightlife.  We stood in line for half an hour at the Opium Mar, apparently THE place to go in July 2012 but were turned away at the door because we were wearing flats though the excuse was that it was a VIP only night. What can I say?  We got the once over and when he got to our feet, said do you have a VIP invitation?  No, sorry, tonight is VIP only.  Some got rejected as soon as they were seen, no scan so at least we past part of the audition! So ladies, if you’re ever in Barcelona and want to get into Opium Mar, wear a dress and heels!

But seriously, we ended up at Catwalk bar where 20E buys you admittance and a drink.  Nice place, good music and lots of people!  It was great.  Managed to stay out and awake until 3h30!

This morning was difficult, I was exhausted but we dragged our lazy tired bones out to our 11am ticket reservation at Segrega Familila which is Gaudi’s greatest work and the most iconic landmark in Barcelona. What I didn’t know is that Segrega is unfinished.  It was started in 1909 by Gaudi and has been under construction at various times since his death in 1926 to be completed according to his plans.  It should be complete in 2030.  BTW, something else I learned, Gaudi died in his early seventies when he was hit by a tram.

Our 3hr high speed train ride from Barcelona to Madrid allowed us to catch some sleep and recoup a little.  We found our hotel relatively quickly, 2 lines and about 5 stops from the train station.  It’s in a cute neighbourhood that looks to be bustling with activity.  We’re looking forward to going out to explore it whilst we scavenge for food!

Hasta Magnana!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Day 1 Barcelona, Spain

So far, so good. An easy flight with only minor turbulence that got us Barcelona an hour early, only to be put into a holding pattern for 30 minutes! We found the shuttle busses really easily and we deposited 4 minutes from the hotel.  Since our room wasn't ready, we dropped our bags and headed out to Rambla, the main tourist street that reminds me a lot of Champs Elisees but narrower.  We were looking for a nice terasse to enjoy a drink and some tapas and ended up eating at this interesting restaurant just off the Ramblas.  A prosciutto sandwich and a sangria for 5.6 Euro seems reasonable to me!

We decided that we wanted to tr the hop on, hop off. So we went back to check into our rooms and get ready to go out.  Josee needed a power nap, so I decided to start writing.  So for those who were wondering, we're here safe and sound. 

More later when I'm not posting from a public computer! Hasta Luego!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Getting Ready for Spain

Back in February, I started itching to plan my next adventure. I hadn't traveled since my Mediterranean Cruise and though I knew I would be going to Daytona Beach for Easter and Fort Lauderdale for business in June, I really wanted to explore somewhere new.

At Bobbie's surprise 30th birthday party Josée suggested that she was also looking for a travel partner.  Europe this summer was as far as we got that night.  Over the next few months, we planned this ambitious trip.  Over 17 nights and 18 days. we will be making our way from Barcelona to Malaga and stopping in at least 14 towns, sleeping in 9 different hotels, taking 3 high speed trains, negotiating a rental car through the hill towns and Southern Spain and visiting Morocco.

T - 5 days. Planning phase is done, now to packing.  Trying to pack light, yet be prepared for everything might prove to be more difficult than I originally thought!

I'll try to post short impressions and the best of the pictures frequently!  Hope you'll follow along with us!

Key West, Florida, June 2012

At the beginning of June, the entire division of MCC took off to Fort Lauderdale for 5 days of planning and, of course, fun in the sun! I decided to head out a day early so that I could tag along with a colleague and discover Key West. 

We flew down to Fort Lauderdale on Sunday afternoon, and had planned to make the 4 hour trek in a Jeep bright and early Monday morning.  The plan was to leave at 5am to get to Key West by 9 am so that we could spend 4 hours and then be back at 5pm with an hour to spare before the kickoff BBQ.  Well even the best laid plans are bound to change!
At the ungodly hour of 4:30 am, I woke to the awful sound of my Blackberry wake up call. By 4:50 at was in the parking waiting for my colleague.  By 5:10, they had located the Jeep and we were on our way.  
In front of the tourist information site announcing the beginning of the Keys

The trip took a little less than 4 hours.  My sole plan was to take a picture at the southern most point of the continental US and take in the sights. 
Once at the Keys most of the road was like this, on a bridge surrounded by water
Southernmost Point: Check!

Interesting Find while exploring Key West
And, given that I'd been in my new job for about 5 minutes, I did a few store checks to see what Suncare looked like in Key West. After some exploring and some shopping, lunch was in order before we made the trip back to Fort Lauderdale.  A supplier had suggested the pier which turned out to be a great suggestion.

So where did our best laid plans go wrong you may be wondering?  Well about 45 minutes into our drive back on US1, two lanse highway surrounded by water, traffic came to a complete stop.  Engines off, nobody moving for 30 minutes.  Turns out an accident on US Route 1 brings traffic to a complete stop as emergency crews clean up the highway.  What this meant for us is that even as traffic starting rolling again, it wasn't until Key Largo that we starting rolling at reasonable speeds.  We left Key West at 12:45 and rolled into the W Fort Lauderdale hotel parking lot at 7:45.  Lucky for us, the weather was beautiful, sunny and hot. Unfortunately, both our blackberries died and we ran out of music to listen to.  

In the end, despite the painfully long drive back, I don't regret my excursion.  Key West was beautiful and I'm glad I took the time to visit.