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!
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.
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.
Thursday we took the Metro to Plaza de España, with the goal of seeing the cool light show at the Magic Fountain. After getting there, Clare discovered that they only do the light show at night. Oh well. The fountain was still very beautiful even without lights and music.
At this point Meg really needed to go the bathroom. Fortunately, the magic fountain is right next to the Museo Nacional D’Art de Catalunya. We decided to pay the entrance just to use bathroom, but it turned out to be a great decision. The building is very impressive from the outside, and even more so from the inside. In my opinion, just seeing the building itself would have been nice, but it is also filled with great art from a number of different periods, including a couple Dali and Gaudi pieces. Much to my surprise, the museum was nearly empty, so it was really nice to have it mostly to ourselves. There is also a roof with a great view. By the time we got to the roof it had just started raining (which meant that they turned off the magic fountain, so we got lucky to see it). After an hour or two in the museum we decided to head back to our hotel. By this point it had mostly stopped raining, which was great timing.
We heated up some leftovers for the kids, and Clare and I walked around the corner for a lunch date while the kids relaxed. After lunch Clare toured around the Art Nuevo Hospital Sant Pau while the kids and I played Uno. A great way to spend a slightly rainy day in Barcelona.
On Wednesday in Barcelona the weather was fantastic – about 70 and sunny. We decided to take the Metro to the Arc de Triomf (since we had just seen the one in Paris recently). The one in Paris is more impressive, but the Barcelona one is very nice too. Then we walked over to the park with the zoo. We didn’t go into the zoo, but enjoyed the beautiful park some. Then we headed towards the Gothic Quarter and La Rambla, with the goal of going to the large open-air market of Mercat de la Boqueria. We got hungry before we got to the market, so we decided to stop for lunch. I saw a place that advertised having a rooftop terrace, so we decided to go there. We got up to the roof, and after waiting for a waiter for about 15 minutes we finally gave up. We did get to enjoy the terrace for free for a few minutes, which was nice. Eventually we ended up eating at an Udon place, which was quite good. Then we headed over to the market. They had all sorts of great fresh and preserved food, mostly for reasonable prices. I got some chanterelles, which I hadn’t had for years, and turned those into a sauce for dinner. Spencer was excited because we found a kiosk where he was able to buy some soccer trading cards.
On the way back home Meg had to use the bathroom so we stopped in a department store, and I found a new hat – see next post 🙂
On Tuesday we went to Park Guell. It was supposedly only about a 30 minute walk from our hotel, but it took us well over an hour – partly because we kept stopping frequently, including a much needed haircut for Rob and buying some fruit to eat once we got there. Also, it was uphill the entire way, which slowed us down some. The Park was designed by the famous Antoni Gaudi around 1900. Much of the park is free, but there is a small section where you have to pay. We ended up just wandering around the free part, which was not that crowded, and very beautiful in its own right, with great views of the city, beautiful plants, and interesting architecture, like the columns resembling stalagtites. We found a nice place to eat our fruit (Spencer, the picky eater, had several apples!!). We eventually made it the top, where we were greeted with beautiful views and lovely guitar music.
One of the souvenirs we picked up were some bird whistles (the kind that you have to add water to). I have had one of these for many years, and actually used it in percussion ensemble. My old one is plastic. These ones are clay. We’ll see which one lasts longer.
Monday we visited the Sagrada Familia basilica. Construction started around 1880, and is scheduled to be completed in 2026. Clare visited it in 1999 and it was much different then; it didn’t even have a roof – only 2 walls and the crypt. We were all very impressed by the beauty of the church and how different it is from many other churches – the style of Antoni Gaudi is very unique. He incorporates lots of elements of nature. He didn’t like being in public, and in fact died by getting hit by a streetcar, and was presumed to be a beggar. They left him for several hours before bringing him to the hospital, and he died several days later.
Clare booked a tour for us ahead of time, which was really great. We learned quite a bit. When finished, it will have 18 towers, and the center tower will be the tallest in the world (sorry Ulm, only a few more years left with that title). Of course, one big difference is that the Ulm cathedral was not built with cranes. They are really putting it together quickly now.
We all agreed that Sagrada Familia is one of our favorite churches we have ever seen, maybe even our favorite.
Saturday we left for two weeks in Spain. It was the first time the kids (and maybe the adults) had boarded a plane from the ground before. We flew Ryan Air from the Charleoroi airport in Belgium to Barcelona. My co-worker Jesus was nice enough to pick us up from the airport and take us to our hotel. The first night we stayed in a tiny place in the Gothic quarter. We had a tasty dinner on the Plaza Real.
On Sunday, Jesus picked us up and took us to Monjuic, one of the hills on the outside of Barcelona. There is a castle there with great views of the city. Then we went back to his apartment for lunch and played with their kids. It was a great start to our adventure.
Spencer had a soccer game yesterday. The normal goalie couldn’t make it so he got to play goalie. I think he enjoyed it. He didn’t get much action, since his team was much better than the opponent. They won 8-2. Uncle Phil and I went to the game. It had rained overnight, but was just overcast during the game, which was nice. I did learn that at the end of each game they do a shootout, which doesn’t actually count towards the score, but is fun for the kids, so they each get to try to score a goal (and the goalie gets more practice). One thing that the coach mentioned (and some of the other parents) was that Spencer could throw the ball really far – farther than some kids can kick it. I guess all that American football paid off.