In which we learn that the Spanish Inquisition was entirely expected

Madrid wasn’t necessarily part of the initial travel plan at all, but the tickets from Barcelona to Seville the day we wanted to go were sold out, so we figured we’d spend a couple nights in Madrid instead.

Spain’s largest city, Madrid struck me as akin to Manhattan. We stayed in Lavapies, an immigrant and artist neighborhood on the South side of town, which felt like what Brooklyn probably was when it was still Brooklyn. The one time we ventured into center city we were immediately in huge crowds of tourists and I felt like I was in the hell known as Times Square. We shuffled along as quickly as we could and got out of there. I hadn’t planned on it being so unbelievably crowded, but Christmas/New Year’s time is holiday in Spain too, so I wasn’t just fighting foreign tourists but Spanish ones as well.

Eric’s post on our first day in Madrid is excellent and full of details and pictures. We were initially going to leave for Sevilla in the morning, but changed our train ticket so we’d have time to visit the Reina Sofia museum to see Picasso’s Guernica, permanently housed there. Unlike EVERY OTHER MUSEUM in the world, the Reina Sofia (contemporary art) is closed on Tuesday, not Monday, so we were disappointed when we tried to go there the previous day.

Most contemporary art museums in Europe that we’ve been to focus on the movements surrounding the World War, the Cold war, and dictatorship whether of the fascist or socialist flavor. Spain was not directly involved in either World War so this is not part of the history nor the art. They were embroiled in their own vicious civil war from 1936-1939 and that is reflected in the art of the time. A coup by the rightist military (Republicans), led by Francisco Franco, against the ruling left leaders (Nationalists) arose. The military right was supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and many civilians were killed in the fighting. Artists and intellectuals fled during the fighting and after the Franco regime won and took power, setting up Spain for a military dictatorship that wasn’t to end until Franco’s death in 1975.

Picasso, in exile in France, followed the fighting in his home country. He learned of the bombing of the northern village of Guernica and was commissioned by the Nationalist government to create a piece of art in response. Covering an entire wall, the painting travelled around the world for its early life to highlight the atrocities of the civil war and fundraise for the losing cause. No pictures of the artwork are allowed, so here’s one from the web. The pain of the people and animals in the painting is evident, and it is considered to be the most important anti-war artwork of the 20th century.
Fun fact: A tapestry replica hangs in the UN, and was in the room where Colin Powell made televised addresses in support of the Iraq war. The Bush government had the tapestry covered during this time, thinking it was unseemly to call for war in front of the Guernica.

We made it into Sevilla in the early afternoon, hopped a bus to our Air BnB and settled in. This time, the neighborhood is Triana. Older, largely residential and working class, but with plenty of bars and restaurants as well.

In the morning, I chirped “Does anyone want to go on a walking tour?” The kids groaned, Eric said he really needed to go for a run instead. I didn’t feel like sitting around the house so thought I’d just go by myself. This turned out to be an excellent idea.

I wish I’d gone on the free walking tours in other cities – they’re great ways to get the lay of the land and some ideas about where you might want to spend more time. They cost nothing to show up, though you are expected to tip your tour guide between 5-10 Euros at the end, and they’re still worth it. Daniel, an energetic guy with the Pancho tours company, walked us around his city and pointed out the sights along with stories.

Seville is interesting from an architectural standpoint as it was one of the later cities to be “reconquered” by the Spaniards from the Moors, the Moroccan invaders. The Muslims occupied most of the Iberian peninsula by the 8th century, and it was years of a slow recovery of homeland lasting until the 15th century, ending with Granada in the south. In most cities, all existing Muslim buildings were destroyed and replaced with Christian/Western style buildings instead. In Seville, where there were large populations of Muslims as well as Jews, the buildings weren’t demolished but instead reformatted to include both elements. The large cathedral is an example of this – it was built on the site of the previous mosque, and the towers that surround it bear clear Moorish influence. The remains of Christopher Columbus rest in the cathedral. One interesting theory is that Columbus was actually a secret Jew, and the date he left for the Indies was also the date of the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition (very much expected) where all Jewish people were either forced to convert or be executed. Fun fact: the inside of the tower has ramps, not stairs, so that during Moorish times, the Imam could ride a donkey up to the top to save his voice for the calls to prayer!

A later pic of the cathedral at night

The tour ended at the Plaza de Espana, which is just incredible. A wide open space built for the Spanish exposition of 1929 it features a large semicicular plaza with tiled murals of all the Spanish provinces bordering it. I went back later with the kids – there’s a guy who makes big bubbles on the plaza and has buckets for you to do so as well. There’s boombox playing pop hits mixed in with classical, and the sunny plaza is filled with bubbles, children laughing as they try to chase them.

Later that day, we met up with Victor, who we’d met on our rained out bike ride in Cambodia! So, so fun! Victor is originally from Seville and we had a blast together. He took us to a delicious little tapas place in Triana, then we wandered around the Santa Cruz barrio, or old town and had some orange wine, finishing up with a visit to a rooftop bar near the Cathedral where we had a pretty view with the sunset. I loved that we were able to meet up with him and hope we are able to do so again!

Our next day we booked a tour for the Alcazar, a Moorish castle until it was taken over by the Christians, again the Muslim elements were not destroyed, simply a new level was built on top. The castle is stunning inside. Large rooms and courtyards all decorated with plaster moldwork, featuring nature themed designs and patterns. Colorful tilework lines the ceilings, and the lamps are said to represent stalactites and stalagmites to further imitate nature. The Christian levels, I must say, are rather boring after this. Large tapestries that celebrate various kings and their conquests, somewhat mismatched tilework. It just isn’t as artful. The gardens and some of the interior were used in filming Dorne in  Game of Thrones.


After lunch we walked on the main pedestrian mall and came across this bizarre street performer. What on earth was he doing? We found out a minute later when an unsuspecting woman walked by, not paying attention at all. As she passed the table, he rapped a box underneath to create a sudden noise. The woman gave a small jump and yelped in fear, looked over and then started laughing – she had been had! The rest of us burst into laughter because it was hilarious. We stood there for a good twenty minutes, watching person after person get startled. Kids and dogs were the funniest reactions to watch of course, though I noticed the performer was careful never to startle anyone with a baby or anyone too elderly! Thoughtful, no?

For New Year’s Eve, we managed to get into rather a squabble. I had really wanted to see a flamenco show and there was one right around the corner. We got there in the nick of time, only for Eric to announce that he didn’t really want to see a flamenco show, it was too expensive, and he would just go sit in the plaza instead. Now, one possible reaction to this would have been for me to say, “Sure honey, we’ll see you in an hour,” and head on in with the kids. This is not the reaction I had. Feeling quite rejected, I nearly burst into tears and said something like “Fine! Then we WON’T go!” Unable to be mollified, we spent much of the morning in a tiff as we walked back to the Plaza to Espana so Eric could see it. Along the way, we of COURSE saw sign after sign announcing “Flamenco show for New Year’s Eve!” I mean, really.
We eventually all got over it and ended up back at home for a quiet New Year’s Eve, playing a family game of Dungeons and Dragons. Eric’s role was that of a monk, and he chose to use his first turn to try and tell a story to some doltish orc like creatures, for which he was rewarded with a rap to the head and was knocked unconscious for the next fifteen minutes. After one hour of playtime, we had advanced through just one room in an underground dungeon. The idea to walk around Seville at night was floated, and then summarily rejected by all present, exhausted as we were from a day of strolling about the city, and we bid an early farewell to 2016.


In which we have a Bon Nadal

Barcelona for Christmas time, we decided, and booked six nights here to have a more relaxed time of it. The neighborhood here we decided on was Gracia, an area to the North side of Barcelona, again not in the tourist scrum, more residential but still lively. It turned out to be perfect for us, with vibrant streets and lots of families around. 

Patterned tile sidewalk on the streets of Barcelona

We went to the beach the first day, first walking down La Rambla, the wide boulevard that bisects Barcelona. Ringed with touts selling all sorts of cheap wares and filled with selfie-stick wielding tourists, we escaped as quickly as we could. Finding the ocean, we left the kids at the seaside while Eric and I walked fifty yards away to a boardwalk bar, sipping a beer while the kids became thoroughly covered in sand. Creative sand artists line the boardwalk with their creations, with boxes for offerings set out in front. On the way home, we strolled through small streets of the old city and eventually ended up back home. 

We took a walking architecture tour the following day, overall underwhelming from a tour standpoint, but still with some interesting tidbits to be gained. As Eric describes in his post, Barcelona city planning is such that the buildings are laid out on a grid and the facades are cut across corners so that the intersections form somewhat of a diamond or octagonal shape when viewed from above, opening up the city as a whole and letting more light in. In the courtyards of the city blocks are small parks – these had been filled in with warehouses, but as these fall into disuse they are dismantled and the space opened for public use. 
Antoni Gaudi was a Spanish architect who was known for his somewhat outlandish styles, but more so for how he used nature as an inspiration for his buildings. Using catenary arches to support the weight of large buildings was revolutionary, instead of relying on external supporting buttresses as had been done in the past. Here you can see the undulating forms of his buildings, in contrast to the straight lines that had been done previously. The roof of the building follows these waved lines in arcing forms. According to our guide, and somewhat unsurprisingly, Gaudi was hated by his contemporaries.

After the tour, a lunch of tapas was in order and Cerveseria Catalan did not disappoint. We decided to make a Gaudi day of it and headed to the Sagrada Familia basilica after this, Gaudi’s last civic project before getting run over by a tram at the age of 72. I didn’t really know what to expect, the outside is a bizarre mishmash of styles and scaffolding. It’s now predicted to be completed by 2026, but my guess is that people doubt it will ever be finished. 

Once you step inside, however, the effect is magnificent. An open space formed by white catenary arches is surrounded by stained glass windows of deepest rainbow colors. You feel as if you’ve wandered into a fairyland forest and the effect is mystical. The low afternoon light streamed in and threw colored reflections throughout the cathedral. Other than the natural decorations from the light, there was little else in the main room to show power and wealth, unlike the other cathedrals we’ve witnessed so far, and as a result felt truly holy. Interesting that the most religious space I feel I’ve been in is the one that reflects nature as it is, instead of the creations of Man at their most ornate. 


The next day was Christmas Eve, and the girl was clamoring to go back to the beach, so we made that our plan. I know that it means we skipped more sightseeing in Barcelona, and the list of things we didn’t really get to see is long, but sometimes everyone has more fun if you just relax and don’t make it about having to “see” everything. Despite the water temperature being 60 degrees, the girl was undeterred and went for a swim, harkening back to her past life as a polar bear. 

The kids had found a discarded pine tree branch in a pile near the Sagrada Familia, and spent the morning making paper and string ornaments to decorate it. We played Christmas music on my phone and finally felt like we were getting into the spirit a bit more. I haven’t been homesick much on this trip, but this was a harder time. For the last eleven or twelve Christmases, my sister has flown out to Denver for the holiday. The last few years have included my sister’s husband and his sister as well, so the group has happily grown. We make pierogies together, try to go out for a trivia night, once went to a hockey game (my first!) and always go skiing on Christmas day before coming home, taking showers and opening presents in our pajamas. We listen to Christmas music and get our tree the day after Thanksgiving, put up a sparkly wreath, and decorate together. I look forward to it all year, and I know Sapana does too. This year all of us felt wistful at missing a home Christmas and our traditions that usually go with it. 

A bit late but we managed a little tree, sure. Pierogies too, then, must still be part of the menu. The ingredients weren’t particularly difficult to find, though a rolling pin wasn’t available at the apartment. I continued my series of improvisational cooking by using an unopened wine bottle and it did a serviceable job.

Santa managed to find us and brought a small bag of candies for the kids, and Eric and I found them each a present too. We went out to Park Guell for our last day of Gaudi. Initially conceived as a high-end housing development, it never took off as a residential area. The park features several Gaudi designed elements in a large hillside pavillion leading down to two houses at the base, again in his nature inspired style. Among the columns we played hide and seek, and I must say I did quite well at this. 

A lovely walk around in the sun, then back home to eat our pierogies, open the wine bottle rolling pin, and hang out before the next day took us to Madrid.

In which we make a shift in plans and head for Spain

The initial plan for our break between Romania and Ireland was to travel to India. I thought we’d have a good four weeks there, but the Romanian refused to give us the dates of winter break until after we’d arrived, so we learned late that it would only be two and a half. When we were in Budapest we tried going to the embassy to get a visa, only to be met by a malodorous clerk who informed us, after an hour of waiting in a small cheerless room with a random table of Ayurvedic products for sale, that it would take five weeks. Then when I looked at tickets to a visa on arrival airport instead, they came to about $2000/each, putting them well out of the budget for this year. In hindsight, what I should have done was get a year long visa while in the States and then buy tickets the minute we had our schedules in hand. Live and learn, and perhaps we can make it happen next year with better planning.
We decided instead on a shorter hop to Spain, and using one of the discount airlines in Europe (the somewhat off-color named “Wizz Air,” not joking) got a ticket from Romania to Valencia for $31 each. We pulled into Valencia in the evening, and even after the sunset the warm air was a relief from the frozen air of Timisoara we left behind. I’ve learned to book a certain type of neighborhood for us now – one that’s closeish to downtown, not in the main tourist area, residential, but still with shops and restaurants nearby, honestly similar to our own neighborhood at home. Here in Valencia, that neighborhood was Russafa. It was once a downtrodden area, but has been revitalized thanks to an influx of artists and city planning which has created more pedestrian friendly zones.

Russafa market

The next morning Eric picked up a plate of incredible pastries from Dulce de Leche, a delicious coffeeshop/bakery down the street and along with coffee at home we had a breakfast feast. It was a rare rainy day in Valencia, so with our trusty Tokyo Disney umbrellas in hand, we made our way Eastward to the Jardin de Turia park and then the Science museum. The Turia river had run through the city of Valencia, but after recurrent flooding was diverted and the riverbed converted to a large green space that snakes through the center of the city and ends in the City of Arts and Sciences buildings, including the science museum, aquarium, theater, and Imax among others.

The buildings are a futuristic collection of metal and glass by Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela. Locals hate them because they cost a fortune to maintain and are in continuous repair. The project also came in far over budget and is a symbol of government financial waste. As a tourist, however, I have to say that they are impressive.

The science museum was, well, adequate. Having been raised on excellent science museums, and having the highly interactive Denver one at home, I expect more than what we saw here. There’s a section called the Exploratorium, and it has a collection of the exact same experiments as the one in  San Francisco, where I spent many happy hours as a kid and, well, also as an adult. The activities are spread out in awkward ways and not well explained at all, a true disappointment when you know the magic and wonder of the original.. An exhibition on Tesla detailed his unappreciated discoveries and feud with Edison, who comes out of the whole business looking like a real jerk, but there was little to interact with and the exhibit was mostly a lot of text on the walls of the museum. Exhibits are dual language for the most part, and we used Google translate to fill in the rest with mixed results. My favorite one was where they had chicken eggs in various stages of hatching. I’m not sure, though, what happens to the chicks afterwards. I suspect a well fed reptile nearby. A pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon, in all, but I don’t know that I’d recommend this museum as a must-see. Had the weather been more amiable, exploring the park would have been nicer. 

I think he’s a little too big for the pouch anymore…

We hopped a bus home and left the kids to relax while Eric and I went out for happy hour. We’ve been doing this a fair amount on our travels to everyone’s benefit. The kids get to watch TV, we get a little time alone, then all join up for dinner, happy for the breaks. I would have thought that by now, the kids would have learned how to walk, but they are incapable of it. Always stepping on my feet, or suddenly cutting in front of me and causing me to trip and fall, or pushing me into the street, or walking in front of me and then stopping abruptly, or even running into people on the street because they aren’t watching where they are going. Sometimes I slow down a bit to let them get some space, to no avail as they also slow down and remain six inches in front of my feet. It is a full time labor of attention to simply walk with them and a relief to get a break for an hour and just enjoy the ambiance of walking around a city without it feeling like an obstacle course. 

I knew that restaurants opened late in Spain, but I wasn’t really ready for the reality of it! Many don’t open their doors until 8 pm, and even more don’t open until 9! It took some getting used to, but our schedules have adjusted to this eating schedule a bit – we wake up around 8 am, putter around until 10, have a late breakfast, late lunch, snack and then dinnner. The weather is mild and even at 9 pm you’ll see a lot of families out and about.

The next day I was forced to stay at home for the morning due to some more poor planning on my part, namely waiting until the last minute to order our rail tickets which have to be delivered to a physical address. Eurail passes are in general not that great of a deal anymore, unless you happen to have kids and then you get a “kids travel free” pass where you only pay the reservation fee for the leg of the journey, so we still opted for them. My forced torture of being home alone, no bickering of children, being stepped on, having to answer constant questions, just…peace and quiet. I don’t know how I survived it, but readers, I perservered. I met up with the kids and Eric later for some delicious veggie paella and we spent the rest of the day ambling about the neighborhoods, with the orange tree lined streets. Fun fact: Valencia oranges were actually developed by a Californian agriculturalist and have nothing to do with Valencia, Spain. 

Battle of the Graffiti

Valencia overall is a wonderful smaller city to enjoy and explore! It reminded me a lot of cities like Portland, Denver, and Austin in a way – not as massive as the level A cities, but more inimitable and full of character.