A very happy morning to you all! The fall air was a brisk 31 degrees during my run, which means that we are deep into the season change! Plus, college pigskin is (literally) in the air. It’s a glorious time of year. Glorious I say! I’ve even dusted off the mountain bike and gone on plenty of rides in the past weeks. Woot.
There are many aspects in my life that I am incredibly passionate about, but none quite matches to that of traveling internationally. Since 2007, I have been bitten by the travel bug, and continually seek out new and wonderful places to adventure off to. Even better if they don’t speak English :D
I have officially visited ten other countries (excluding airplane layovers) – and would love to get to 50 before my time has come, and even that has barely scratched the surface of the 196 that are out there (we can all agree – except China – that Taiwan is a country). I have been to all four hemispheres and visited 5 of 7 continents, coming within 16 miles of the 6th. Maybe I’ll just sign up for that marathon in Antarctica… :*)
Three months ago, my wife and I ventured across the pond to Spain, Gibraltar, and Andorra for a break from North America for a bit. It was a wondrous compilation of all the things that make travel entertaining and fun to relish in – wonderful architecture, delicious food, the bustle of new, exciting cities, the musical ringing of a language unfamiliar to my day-to-day, getting lost (or feeling it), and a transportation system that made it easy as pie to get around.
We stopped in five different cities, just a touch too many to make it a relaxing vacation, but we didn’t fly all that way to sit around in our hotel room :D Here’s a quick breakdown, as well as some of the highlights.
Madrid can be summed up as a typical “large city” and one which we unsurprisingly were ready to leave behind after two days. I felt like we spent most of our time there jet-lagged, but primary attractions were definitely the Royal Palace, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol (gate of the Sun), and the Prado Museum. I love museums, but this thing was so gigantic that even I tired of seeing it.
There were all kinds of wonderful parks and gardens and the oldest restaurant in the world, but our food highlights were the delicious Takos tacos and the veal burgers. Mmm! We waited in line for nearly an hour for those delicious meat-filled-tortillas and it was worth every second. Our second experience with paella was better than our first, but all very delicious. At the end of our first week there, we called it quits from the paella and moved on to other local foods :P Rice is hardly a fascinating dish, even if the seafood and meats contained within it were fresh and yummy.
When our time for departure via high speed rail arrived, we were more than glad to jump on and get out of Dodge (Madrid). We did, however, miss the delicious honey tequila given to us as a chaser to dinner our first night there. Mmm!
The most classic of all the Spanish towns we visited, I really felt like we got a true taste of what España had to offer here (literally and figuratively), and basked in its glory and entertainment and pop of European culture. From the super convenient tram running through the middle of town to the amazing cathedral and tasty tapas (say that five times fast), it was a city worth remembering, and certainly my favorite between the Spanish towns.
Highlights were the two hour train ride from Madrid, where we hit speeds of 180 mph!!! AHH! Crazy! I also loved the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, a rugged bullring for the epic conquests that would be witnessed by up to 12,000 people. It is also the oldest bullring in Spain. A quick guided tour gave insights into bullfighting, the prep work, and finally, the fight! It was pretty impressive walking out onto the corn-yellow sand of the arena and imagining all of the bulls that had been here over many, many years. Almost reminded me of Russell Crowe in Gladiator, fending off ferocious animals and wild-eyed barbarians lunging for the final slice through the jugular. The bull fight is a religious experience, literally, with a chapel built into the arena for the matador as he prepares himself.
My wife and I have decided we aren’t really into the tapas thing. They cram the smallest bits of food onto the tiniest of plates, and besides the fact that we both prefer to put massive quantities of food away, I will say, that we had a very pleasant tapas experience, even if I don’t understand how people make a meal out of tapas. We split two tapas plates for about 4 Euros each, and that held us over for about an hour and a half before we sought out dinner. Regardless, it was a delicious collection, and the most fresh and affordable of all the tapas we saw elsewhere.
The Plaza de España was the gem of a site worth seeing, and the free military museum there was absolutely top notch! So great! These pictures don’t do it justice.
We pretty much ignored the rule of a late dinner, and were typically the first one in the doors when the restaurant opened at 8:00 pm, already a really late time for dinner for us.
After some super fun days in Seville, we took a private car two hours south east to the mysterious coast of Gibraltar, technically no longer in Spain. Our driver wanted to practice English while my wife wanted to practice her Spanish. I listened, chimed in in my middle school Spanish from time to time, and mostly watched the countryside pass by, paying particular interest to the bull breeding grounds, where the strongest and studliest moo-cows were sourced from and brought to the bullring I so enjoyed in Seville.
There is plenty to say about a quasi-country that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea. The physical design of the border is perhaps just as fascinating as the attractions within. A runway crosses the only road into or out of Gibraltar, and sure enough, upon exiting our cab we had to wait about 15 minutes for three planes to take off before traffic could resume. Fascinating! There were no extra precautions other than a small gate, similar to what would close for a train crossing, and then suddenly, SWOOSH, a giant airplane comes firing down the runway right across where you were about to be (or had come from).
The water in all directions was a sparkling, emerald green mixed with splashes of blue, reminiscent of rich collection of jewels submerged ever so slightly below the surface. This was my favorite stop on the entire trip, not only because there were wild monkeys all over the island, but there was so much war history to be seen. Large, mounted cannons jutting out at maddening angles, tunnels carved deep into the natural, rock fortress, and caves that screamed of lost and buried treasure.
We also happened to find the best pizza we’ve ever had (in the entire world, I might add) after a discussion with a few locals. Their second choice would have been Pizza Hut (honestly??)… Note: we did NOT confirm if the Pizza Hut there was decent, but Pizzeria Plaza was absolutely, by far and away, the most incredibly pie I’ve ever sank my teeth into. Just wow!
We walked a monstrous percentage of that island in a single day. Some of the great moments were crossing the “Indiana Jones-like” swaying bridge, seeing our first monkeys calmly waiting to greet us as we slogged up one of many hills, views from the top of Africa, the island, and the Spanish coast, and some of the tastiest sandwiches (which in reality were probably not great at all but a welcome relief from our journey). Our hotel was RIGHT on the beach, and provided an excellent evening walk as well as the “Kodak moment” where I snapped my favorite picture from the trip.
I would have gladly swapped out Madrid for an extra day here, but it was a lovely break from the hustle and bustle, and one of the few places I truly felt relaxed. Plus, did I mention all the war history!?
Barcelona is an instant shock to the tourist senses. It punches far outside its weight class with an area to explore 2-3x the side of Madrid, and is a total hustle and bustle of markets, dozens of architectural attractions, a gorgeous coastline, and about four times as many people as you would ever want to be crammed into a sardine can with. The city screams of a noble, elegant time, from workers casually lounging for their afternoon siesta, to the slow, lazy mornings (because everyone went to bed at 1:00 AM). The sheer immensity was enough to scream OVERWHELMING within an hour of getting off the plane.
Food – Top notch. We had approximately zero bad meals, and one of our favorite dinners out was buried in the guts of an industrial district which didn’t exactly scream tourist stop.
Tourist attractions – Amazing. I can’t even list all of the impressive sites we saw, but I did take about 450 pictures.
Weather – Total crap. Every single day we were there, I felt the need for a mop, bucket, and shower after just two hours of exploring. Even our day spent at the beach, sweat was pouring down my face and back, creating an icky, nasty mess. Jumping into the chilly water did nothing to prevent or solve that dilemma, but the water was clear and refreshing. It also helped the train from Barcelona ran RIGHT along the coast, and stopped about 100 feet from the ocean. SO COOL!
This was one “large city” that the two of us actually enjoyed, although the weather really did a number. Visiting in a cooler time would definitely be recommended :-)
Our last stop on our epic adventure took us to the micro-nation of Andorra. Snuggled neatly up in the mountains between France and Spain, the country is relatively unknown, unless you’re into cycling, but was far and away one of the coolest places I have ever been. We hopped on a bus from Barcelona, and skirted the hilly, mountainous country for a few hours before arriving at our destination.
It’s a quaint country, and actually far larger than one would expect. We were disappointed to find out that we were basically “stuck” in the first town we arrived in, and only too late realized that we should have booked a car. Regardless, we made the really, really long trudge up the hill (with all of our crap) to the tourist office and finally managed to find a hotel. The main attractions were shops and high end, luxury items (this was a total ski town), and we quickly grew tired of the city attractions and were ready for some dirt and trees and paths infrequently taken.
We missed our shuttle to the nearby lake, but ended up meeting with a friendly Aussie, also here for the day, and wound up sharing a cab and spending the remainder of the day hanging out (I used to live in Australia so that was a fun connection). A three hour hike off into the equivalent of the Swiss alps with gorgeous, green meadows, a rolling creek that we could hear but not see, and mountains as far as you felt like enjoying really kept the trip fresh. I have never seen so many great panoramic views in my life, and this was the perfect stop. There were a wide array of butterflies and other woodland life, and it was a healthy respite from the brutal, urban rumpus of Barcelona.
After such a long and glorious hike, there was only one food that could satiate the bellies of three hungry adventures – pizza! Little did we know that pizza was such a hard-to-find commodity. Our first stop involved a run-in with a petulant old man running a crappy pizzeria who refused to seat us because it wasn’t dinner time (at 6:30, mind you).
Our next stop also proved fruitless, although one of the more hilarious of our trip stories… Our poor waitress barely spoke English, the Aussie didn’t speak French or Spanish, and Lynnette and I only had a bit of one or the other. Somehow, we convinced her that we wanted the pizzas and listed all the toppings, but alas, she said she can’t add any toppings to any of the pizzas. Obviously, that was cause for concern. You literally just PUT THEM ON THE PIZZA. We discussed amongst ourselves and came to the conclusion that it must be a communication problem, so we tried again – no dice. It was in that process that we unearthed the horrid fact that the pizzas came out of a box… frozen. About 4.5 seconds later we thanked her for her time and promptly GOT THE HECK OUT OF THERE. Hilariously, she was mad that we still didn’t want the beverages we had ordered but not gotten. Why the heck would we want drinks if you can’t even make a pizza with different toppings?!
With all looking lost, we trudged back across the pedestrian footbridge, and lo and behold, a most glorious dining facility with a helpful, friendly, and super conversant waiter who not only said that they have delicious, piping-hot pizzas, but sold us on the best Sangria in Andorra. He was not wrong :D
A joyful night of pizza and storytelling, and it was off to bed and back to Barcelona the next day for rest, and a short hop across the pond back to Reno (other than missing our plane in Dallas because American Airlines sucks). Ahhh! Life was good.
I will say that Andorra is worth a return visit, for hiking and mountain biking, and next time we will make it more of a destination rather than a layover…
As with all trips of such magnitude, not everything went well, but we learned a lot, figured out the bumps in the road, and came away refreshed and and a bit more appreciative of each other. Oh yeah, and I lost my voice for three days. That was greeeaaaaat! Thankfully, my wife did a wonderful job picking up the navigation/translating slack :D