Advent is in full swing here in Germany. We got 3 different advent calendars at home. The kids are exchanging gifts in their classrooms, and the Christmas markets are packed full. Würselen had its Christmas market this past weekend. It was relatively small, but quite well attended and we enjoyed it quite a bit, even though it was drizzling a bit. Meg and I went just the two of us on Saturday. Then all 4 of us went on Sunday. The Glühwein (hot spiced wine) was tasty, as was the potato pancakes and the waffles on a stick that the kids school sold.
Yesterday Spencer baked cookies with his class at school (they have a kitchen with 2 ovens). I helped with Meg’s class today (unfortunately I have to work sometimes so can’t always be there). I had asked the other parents for a recipe, but they said I should use one of my own. So everyone else had cut-out cookies, and I made spritz cookies with the new cookie press my wonderful mom sent me just in time for cookie making. It works great!
November 11th was St. Martin’s day, which is celebrated in the more Catholic regions of Germany, which includes Aachen. Since it is not celebrated at all in the USA, I had to learn all about it. St. Martin lived in the 4th century, and was a soldier in the Roman army. Legend has it that one day he was riding back to camp and there was a freezing homeless man on the road. He ripped his warm coat in half and gave half to the stranger. Later in his life he became a monk, and eventually a bishop. He did not want to become a bishop, but the townspeople really wanted him to. They were all encouraging him to, so he ran away and hid in a barn. The townspeople went out at night with lanterns looking for him, and eventually a goose honked, which gave away his position. He finally decided that he would be a bishop if the people really wanted him to. That’s how the traditions around St. Martin’s day started. You eat goose, and the kids make lanterns and make a parade. Oh, and they also have tasty sweet breads in the shape of St. Martin, which are called Weckmänner (around this region). Elsewhere in the German speaking areas they are known by a variety of different names such as Stutenkerl, Klaaskerl, or Krampus, and are actually usually eaten on St. Nicholas day instead of St. Martin’s day.
For our last day in Madrid, we mostly took it easy again. We walked to the royal palace and to the egyptian temple which was moved in the 1960s from Egypt because it would have been flooded with the creation of a dam. Both were a fairly short walk from our apartment. The kids really enjoyed the labyrinth-style gardens near the royal palace. After a couple hours we went back to the apartment and relaxed. This turned out to be good timing because it started to rain a bit. We did go out again to get some churros and hot chocolate, which was delicious. Clare and I had another date night, in which we simply walked around the plaza mayor and finished the last of the Lagavulin scotch we had bought at a great price in Andorra. I definitely did not want any of that to go to waste.
In the morning we packed up and started the long journey back to Aachen. Our plane was delayed by an hour or so because of plane traffic crossing the Pyrenees, so by the time we got home it was after 8 p.m. I made a quick pasta dinner while Clare went shopping, since the grocery stores are closed on Sundays in Germany. We were all happy to be home (although I was missing the Spanish weather).
After a mostly relaxing day in Madrid, we had a more serious sightseeing day in Segovia, a town not too far from Madrid. To get there, we first took a local Renfe train (basically an express subway in Madrid which is different from the Metro system) to the north train station. We were a bit confused when we got to the north train station. There was a small board with upcoming trains, but we didn’t see ours. A friendly woman suggest we go ask someone at the counter. The only counter we saw was a bakery, but they were helpful. It turns out we had to exit this part of the train station and go upstairs to the far train part. We just barely caught our train. After a quick 37 minutes on the fast train we arrived in Segovia. Apparently the fast train is still quite new, as the train station was still partly under construction. It is also quite far outside of town, but we were able to catch a taxi into town for only about 12 Euros, which is not bad when you are traveling with 4 people. We first admired the aqueduct for awhile, which was built during Roman times. When the Moors conquered Spain they destroyed it, but some Monks rebuilt it in the 15th century, and it was in use up until the 19th century. It was used to bring water to the castle, Alcazar, which we also toured.
I suggested we use the toilet before we start walking towards the castle. We tried to go to Burger King, but it wasn’t quite open yet, so we went to McDonald’s instead. We ended up having a little lunch there, and then got on our way. It was a mostly pleasant walk through the narrow streets of the old town to the castle (other than the kids fighting and complaining). We tried to visit the cathedral on our way, but mass was still letting out, so we continued on the castle. We got the audio guides for the castle tour, and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was a very impressive building indeed, and the gardens were also splendid. After the castle tour we tried to get some lunch at a restaurant, but most of the restaurants were on siesta. However, the cathedral was open at this time, so we looked inside there for awhile. It was yet another impressive church. I particularly found the chapel with the recumbent Christ very unique. It was a very graphic depiction of his death. After visiting the cathedral, we finally ended up finding a bakery/lunch counter and had some treats there, including several tasty empanadas.
In hindsight, we should have booked a train for an hour earlier (or eaten lunch at a restaurant before they closed). We ended up waiting at the train station for about an hour for the train, but we had some time to relax and write postcards. By the time we got back to our apartment we were all quite hungry, so we had a bite to eat and then went to bed.
Since we had all gone to bed quite late on Tuesday, we slept in and took it easy Wednesday morning. Eventually we decided to get out of the house to explore a bit, and decided to split up. The girls went to get their nails done, as a special treat to Meg, since Spencer had a treat by going to the soccer game. Spencer and I decided to head to Puerta del Sol, which Clare described as a sort of Times Square, and was only a short walk. To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed by Puerta del Sol, though we went back a different day at night, and it was much more lively. We did see a couple street performers – a Mario and Luigi. They were very impressed with my moustache and wanted a picture with me. Well, rather, they wanted me to give them some money to take a picture with them, which I did. I usually give something to the street performers, especially the musicians, because I find live music pleasing. I keep thinking that Spencer and I should start busking in Olde Town Arvada – he can play saxophone and I can play pandeiro. We could specialize in jazz bossa novas and sambas. We’ll see if that ever happens. I had promised Spencer that Puerta del Sol might have some kiosks which sold Champions League trading cards, and sure enough they did. So we got some trading cards, and some post cards. Some of the post card images were also not that far, so we decided to continue walking on a bit to find them. We walked by the National Bank of Spain, the Palacio de Cibales, and the Puerta de Alcala. We failed to find a restaurant to both of our likings, so we ended up just going back to the apartment for lunch. There was an interesting part where a circuit tripped and we couldn’t find the circuit breaker, but eventually I called the AirBnB host and figured it out. After lunch we played some cards, and Spencer learned how to do the bridge! (shuffling cards)
While we were seeing big buildings, Clare and Meg were getting their nails done, browsing souvenir shops and getting churros. They had some good finds at the souvenir shops. Meg mostly bought souvenirs to give to others, some for Christmas. She is very generous.
On Tuesday we woke up relatively early again so that we could make it to Madrid by 1 p.m. in order to return the car. Clare wasn’t feeling that well so I drove. We ended up getting into Madrid right around 12:30, and were lucky to find a parking spot a couple blocks away from the AirBnB, which was in a pedestrian zone, right on the main square, the Plaza Mayor. It was very convenient to be right in the heart of the city with many famous landmarks within walking distance, along with street performers, souvenir shops, and restaurants. The only downside is that it was a bit loud at night while we trying to sleep.
Once again, we had some minor panic about getting into our apartment. The AirBnB host had said that the cleaning lady should be there to let us in and get the keys, but apparently she hadn’t been notified someone was coming, so she wasn’t there. After lots of climbing up and down stairs, ringing doorbells and such, we were finally able to get a hold of Jose by phone and the cleaning lady said she could be there in an hour. We left our suitcases inside the building right outside the apartment and went to return the car. Driving in the city center was very stressful, with lots of very narrow one-way streets that crossed pedestrian zones, but we made it eventually. After dropping off the car we got Spencer some McDonald’s and the rest of us ended up having Taco Bell. Generally I try to avoid fast-food restaurants like the plague, but sometimes they are handy. It is interesting to see the differences between the chains in Europe and the U.S. This Taco Bell had a Taco Tuesday deal of a crunch taco and a beer for €1.50, which seemed like a good deal. Clare had a Chicken 2.0 – which was basically a chicken schnitzel wrapped up like a taco shell with taco fillings inside it.
When we got back to the AirBnB the cleaning lady was there and we got the keys. We relaxed for a bit and enjoyed the view from the balcony, and relaxed for a bit. Clare and I then went to a nearby Lidl to get groceries. We had a quick dinner and then Spencer and I headed out to the Real Madrid vs. Viktoria Plze? Champions League game. Consistent with the late-night culture in Spain, the game didn’t start until 9 p.m., so we left around 8 p.m. to take the Metro. Google Maps had told us there would be 3 stops before we needed to transfer, but one of them was closed for construction. We almost didn’t get off at the right spot, but Spencer was paying attention and we saw the name of the station and got off. Both kids are really getting to be good travelers! We got to the stadium around 8:40, and I was shocked at how short the line to get in was. Same goes for the line for bathrooms and refreshments. I think that they have designed it well to have many different small entry points – we entered at Gate 35. Real Madrid dominated most of the game, and won 2-1. It was quite exciting. Getting back was even more exciting – the Metro was packed, but everyone was quite calm and orderly, and we eventually got back to the apartment a little before midnight.
On Monday we woke up in Andorra, had a quick breakfast and packed up, then headed for Zaragoza, a Spanish city about halfway between Andorra and Madrid. I had found us a nice and inexpensive place to stay there. The drive was quite beautiful, especially the part through the mountains, though a bit stressful because of the curves and frequent speed limit changes. Driving in Europe is definitely more tiring than in the United States. Once again, it was nice to have the horsepower of the Audi A4 to pass some slow trucks.
The hotel in Zaragosa was the only one in the trip to actually have a reception which was nice. Once we figured out where the parking garage was, we settled in a bit, then headed out to check out the scenery for a bit. We found a beautiful square with a little park and fountain, then continued on to the main square to see the famous Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. Unfortunately you were not allowed to take photos inside. It had stunning paintings on the ceiling, along with many small domes with windows. Then we had a nice dinner on the square. Spencer had a hamburger, and the rest of us had the menu. Clare had some seafood paella. After dinner we stopped at a fabric store and Meg got some fabric for making clothes – one of the highlights of this trip was watching Project Runway Jr. The kids have gotten very excited about designing and making clothes. We might give it a shot.
One of the things I had read about in Andorra was Naturlandia – a kind of amusement park, which boasts the longest nature slide in the world, go-karts, zipline, and archery, among other things. The kids were very excited to do archery. Clare was not too excited about most of this, so we decided to split up on Sunday – the kids and I drove for 45 minutes (with approximately 6 wrong turns) to Naturlandia, while Clare relaxed and did some hiking near our apartment in Soldeu. We arrived at the park around 10:30, and it was nearly empty, because it was shoulder season. It turns out that the archery was closed, but the kids wanted to stay anyways. We ended up being one of the last people to leave at 6 p.m. The kids were really great about taking turns, since I had to go 1-1 with them on many of the attractions. Spencer really enjoyed these mini jeep go karts they had, which they called buggys. He must have ridden those about a dozen times. Meg wanted to do the Airtrekk and Zipline, which we did early in the day. I was terrified at first, but was brave, mostly because Meg was braver than I. After I got used to it, I was okay, and had a good time. Spencer didn’t want to do it at first, but after I told him my story about skydiving, he decided to give it a try. He did great, and we ended up doing it 4 or 5 times total.
Friday morning we awoke, with the plan of leaving Barcelona and heading to Valencia. We were just about packed and ready to go when Clare got a message from the AirBnB host that there was a big storm in Valencia, and that the restaurant where we were supposed to pick up the keys was probably going to close, but that we could still get the keys some other way. We decided to do a bit more investigation. I contacted one of my work colleagues in Valencia, and he said that they had closed schools and it was pretty bad. The weather forecast was calling for rain all weekend. We decided to look into other options. But first we had to leave the hotel. We took the Metro to the main train station, and used the WiFi there to do a bit more investigating. We ultimately decided to travel away from the storm – to Andorra, for three nights, then one night in Zaragosa, and then on to Madrid. Luckily we had rented a car to travel to Valencia, because we had been unable to find any train connections. Since we had booked directly with Hertz, we were able to change the destination from Valencia to Madrid, and we also paid an extra 8 Euro per day for an upgrade to an Audi A4, which was really nice driving in the mountains.
In case you don’t know, Andorra is a tiny principat in the mountains between France and Spain, and is actually ruled jointly by Spain and France. The only official language is Catalan, though most signs also have Spanish, French, and many English. It relies heavily on tourism, particularly skiing. October is definitely an off season, so we were able to get a 2 bedroom apartment with a beautiful view for three nights for only €280. It took quite awhile to figure out exactly where we were going to stay and get the car, so by the time we arrived in Andorra it was starting to get dark. When we found the apartment, which had seemed like a regular hotel when we booked it, I found that the reception had already closed – it was only open from 2-6 p.m. I tried calling the number by the door to no avail, and we started to get worried about whether we were going to be able to find a place to sleep. We all got back in the car and started to drive towards France, where we could use our cell phones (our cell phone plans here don’t charge extra for pretty much any country in the EU except for Andorra). I decided to turn around and check at a different hotel which we had passed, where I could see that the reception was open. I inquired about a room there, which was going to be over €500. I then asked if the person could help me contact the hotel we had booked, and he was very nice to help me, and we were able to get in.
I actually knew very little about Andorra before we decided to go there, other than having read a play titled Andorra by Max Frisch, which I had always enjoyed. It turns out it is a bit more populated than I had expected – about 70,000 people – though who knows how many people are there on a ski weekend – it has a lot of hotels. On the drive through Spain to Andorra I mixed my time between helping Clare with directions, taking pictures, and reading up on Andorra. I learned that there is a gigantic thermal bath there, and also a nature / amusement park. On Saturday we ended up going to the thermal bath, and it was indeed very cool. They had many different pools of various sizes and temperatures – mostly inside, and some outside. They also had several cold pools. Meg was impressively good at staying in the cold pools. I don’t know how she did it. There was one section built like a Roman bath, and the instructions were to stay in the 36°C pool for 3 minutes, then the 14°C degree pool for 3 minutes, then relax on the stone benches for 10 minutes. I didn’t last more than 30 seconds in the cold pool, but Meg probably lasted more than 5 minutes.
After the thermal baths we went into town to find some lunch. We ended up at a place called Big Ben, which was quite tasty. Spencer had a hamburger, as usual, and the rest of us had the menu with various different dishes. Clare had snails for her first course, which she said were really tasty, and the rest of us tried to not look while she was eating them. By the time we got back to our apartment it was after 7 p.m. We had some snacks and watched some Modern Family, then went to bed.