Barcelona We Love You

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When we announced that we were going to be living in Barcelona for the summer, I was shocked at how many people said they would be there, and might be able to meet up with us. We live on the East Coast in the States, so we rarely get to see family or friends from the West Coast. I thought it was so funny that we were going to be even farther away, yet only now getting visitors. My husband said it’s because North Carolina is really not a tourist destination. While I may think NC is just as cool for it’s serene beaches near the dunes, and lush verdant forests in the mountains, I guess I have to agree him.

There is so much to see and do in Barcelona that even living there for three months, we couldn’t see it all. I have been asked by friends who came to visit while we were there, friends who are going to visit after we’ve been there, and random strangers what the best things are to see there. This is my list of our favorites:

GOTHIC QUARTER

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This was our absolute favorite place in Barcelona. On weekends when we were ‘home’ we would spend Sundays taking a stroll through this area. Every time we were there we found something new. It is quintessentially Europe. There is no other way to describe it. The narrow and winding streets are lined with little shops, cafe’s, restaurants, and bars. Above the shops elaborate wrought iron balconies spill over with plant life. Some streets are decorated with colorful bunting, others showcase laundry swaying in the breeze.

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The Gothic Quarter literally has something for everyone. If you’re a history buff, some of the old buildings and structures you’ll see date back to Medieval times. Love arts? Museums? This area is packed with little galleries featuring local artists, and there are several museums for exploring, including the famous Picasso museum.

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The famous Palau de la Musica Orfeo Catalana is also located in this area. We didn’t get a chance to see the inside, but you can see from the picture above, it’s just as breathtaking from the outside.

There are beautiful cathedrals to tour, (do bring a scarf or wrap if you are wearing something that doesn’t cover your shoulders- the Cathedral of Barcelona will not let you in otherwise), the shopping is amazing, and of course the tapas abound.

The Gothic Quarter really is something spectacular to see. If this spot does make your list when you visit Barcelona, do yourself a favor and lose the map. This is somewhere you just want to get lost. You can keep your phone close by to orientate yourself, but promise me you’ll let yourself go and wander.

BASILICA OF THE SAGRADA FAMILIA

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This was our second favorite. Sagrada Familia is the church of all churches. To put into perspective, we had to walk to the park that was in front of the church, about a block away, just to get the whole of the church into the frame. If you try to get a picture of it when you are actually next to the church, you won’t be able to get it all in.

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I have never been near, or inside a church that made me feel so small and simple by comparison. If the sheer size of the building doesn’t take your breath away, the detail work that covers every inch of this beautiful building will. You can see a small sample of it in the picture above, but it covers the entire facade of the church. The crazy thing is that construction is still ongoing, so with each passing day this church becomes even more grand than it was the day before.

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The outside of the church will leave you breathless in awe, but the inside of the church will knock you sideways with its beauty. Top to bottom the finest work of art I have ever had the privilege to walk through. It is actually incredibly difficult to photograph, at least when you only have an iPhone, because there is just too much to take in. The columns and pillars tower above you, branching out to connect with a starry ceiling high above.

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The stained glass windows are ablaze with color. The windows are so vast, and numerous, that the pillars surrounding the main nave of the church actually glow with a rainbow of colors. I’m afraid my pictures don’t do it much justice, but it is such a sight to behold.

If you do visit this church be sure to check out the museum that they have underneath the building. They have detailed photos and descriptions of the construction of Sagrada Familia, along with some of the original furnishings. I was fascinated by the scale models that Gaudi used with weights and strings. Such a revolutionary way of thinking.

I am happy to share that this is also very much a family friendly activity. There were a lot of churches we visited in Europe that we had to rush through, because of a certain excitable toddler. Here there are so many tourists, that your child’s noise kind of gets lost in the crowd.

When we visited Sagrada Familia, all we could keep saying over and over again was ‘Wow!’ We spoke to each other in hushed voices to be in the presence of such beauty, even though we were surrounded by numerous tourists all chattering together. To me this is something to be seen because you don’t just see something amazing. You feel something amazing. You feel the presence of something bigger and greater and more wonderful than you can put into words.

TIBIDABO

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This is a place for anyone looking to have fun. It’s a 100 year old amusement park set on top of a mountain top overlooking the city of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. The views here are incredible, and were it not for an early bedtime (for Esmé, not us), we would have loved to have visited around sunset. That way you would be able to watch the whole city glow in the setting sun.

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They have rides for big kids and young kids alike. We took Esmé’s for her very first ride on a carousel and she absolutely adored it. This particular carousel is a vintage one from the early 20th century and it looks like it belongs on top of a music box it’s so charming.

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The Templo del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus sits at the very top of the park and is not only a lovely church to visit, but offers you some very choice viewing areas of the city. We went up the stairs to the very first level ( in the picture: at the top of the taupe looking stone, before the grey starts), but you can actually pay to take an elevator to the top.

Getting to the park is also part of the fun. We took the subway and buses, and got to see some beautiful areas of the city. If you take the Funicular, which is a cable car, and little more expensive, I am told that you get an even better tour of the city as you go up the mountain. Either way, this is a wonderful activity to make a day out of with a group of friends or the whole family.

PARK GUELL

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Park Guell is another iconic work of Gaudi’s where you’ll see the famous, colorfully tiled, curving benches overlooking the park grounds, and the city beyond. This is a wonderful place for everyone to enjoy. There are flat, sometimes paved, pathways that go all throughout the park; but you would definitely be able to see it in a lot less time if you don’t have a stroller with you as you could take the stairs.

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If you follow the paths, or stairways up past the main terrace area, you’ll end up getting to see some spectacular views of the city. There is actually a hill at the highest point in the park that has a cross at the top where, if you get there early enough to beat the crowds, you can get an amazing panoramic view. We got there around 10:30 in the morning and it was already packed.

Beautiful views, and historical works of art aside, there are restaurants here if you want to stop and get something to eat after hiking around the park. There are also two wonderful playgrounds for kids to play: one for very small children like Esmé, and the other for much bigger kids.  This was one of the very first places we visited in Barcelona, and it really made for a spectacular start to our stay in this gorgeous city.

CASA BATLLO and LA PEDRERA- CASA MILA

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Here I have to make a confession…I walked past Casa Batlló on at least a weekly basis, if not twice weekly. Yet we never actually toured the inside of this building!

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Same goes for Casa Milà. I know, I know, it really is terrible. I wish we could have done the tour for both, but looking back, I think it’s probably best that we didn’t attempt it. Esmé never really cared for being inside smaller, closed spaces. We also left our baby carrier at home, so navigating our stroller up several flights of stairs inside these beautiful homes would have made me a nervous wreck.

Based on what I’ve read and heard, both of these are a must see, which is why I added them to my list. La Pedrera is supposed to be even more spectacular at night as they have a light show that really plays with the architecture of Gaudi’s work.

I think it would be family friendly for people who have children that are a little bit older, or people with baby carriers where you can contain your toddler, and minimize the amount of terror they can inflict upon other people. For now, I’m happy that I got to see the outsides of both on a regular basis, and even get a picture of the hubs kissing my baby girl. Doesn’t get any better than that.

A FEW LAST POINTERS

Take a tour bus! You will get to see everything the city has to offer, so you can see what you think you would enjoy the most, then go back and focus on just those things. In addition to an audio guide that you get to listen to while you’re on the bus, they will also give you a pamphlet/tour guide that you can take home. What I did was fold down the pages of places that caught our eye, then did a little more research on them when I got home to see if it was really something worth checking out. They also give you coupon books for several of the tourist attractions, so if you do decide to go and check some of the things out at a later time, you’ll get to get in for a discounted rate.

Buy tickets online in advance for anything you want to see. This includes: Park Guell, Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló, La Pedrera, and any museums you want to see. You will be able to skip the lines this way and save yourself hours of waiting time. When we went to Park Guell, even though it was around 10 when we got there, we would have had to wait 2 hours to get into the paid terrace area. Because we had Esmé, we opted to skip the paid park, and just walk around the park surrounding the area.

If shopping is top on your list, Passeig De Gracia is where you want to go. This world famous street has everything from Chanel and Louis Vuitton, to Zara and H&M. There were also quite a few really lovely boutiques that I had never heard of before, if you’re looking for something you can’t buy anywhere else. If you want to shop til you drop, you have to check this out. While you’re there you must go to Boldu bakery and replenish your energy levels with a little donut man.

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Get the lemon one, (unless citrus desserts aren’t your thing, in which case I would feel sorry for you), or the dark chocolate one. Literally the best donut I have ever had in my entire life. EVER. I walked 3 miles round trip just so that I could have it one more time before we came back to the States.

If you want to know what the best beaches are, see my post here.

Go wandering on Sundays. Nearly everything is closed on Sundays. Restaurants, and bars will stay open, but all grocery stores and retailers are closed on Sundays, (save a very few in heavy tourist areas near the harbour, or in the Gothic Quarter). As such, everything is a little less crowded, and a little more peaceful than it normally would be. It makes for the most wonderful wandering environment. You don’t feel so rushed, so you really get to enjoy the scenery around you.

Lose the map and look up! Otherwise you might miss this…

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Or this…

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Some of the best things we saw were things that we found by accident. In Barcelona, if you are too busy walking around with a selfie stick, or messing around on your phone, you will miss the best that this city has to offer. Because you don’t see it at street level, where all the shops and restaurants are, it’s up above them. That’s where the magic happens.

 

Home

A few weeks ago we got the news that we were going to go home earlier than we expected. The project that my husband was working on changed direction, and so there was no need for us to be on-location anymore.

You might think that we were really bummed, because it meant the end of our European weekend adventures, and we were a little bit. Truthfully we were elated!

I touched on how difficult living in Barcelona was in the beginning here, but even after we worked out all the kinks and settled in a bit, we were living in a state of limbo. We had no idea how long we were going to stay, and no time estimate of when we would know. We couldn’t buy basic things that make day-to-day life easier like, mixing bowls, chopping knives, or interactive toys for Esmé because if we were only going to be there short-term, we wouldn’t be able to take them back with us. It would be a waste of money, so we waited, and waited, and waited. We worked with what we had, and tried to make the best of a very difficult, frustrating situation.

When you add the stress of always wondering what’s going to happen, to the frustration of struggles you face on a regular basis trying to assimilate to a new country, the romantic notion of living abroad gets squashed very quickly. We were more than ready to come home.

Everything about our journey home was easy, almost effortless. I say almost because everyone who has kids knows that traveling with children is never effortless.

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They didn’t hassle us with anything when we were checking in. The plane was nearly empty for our international flight, so we were able to take our car seat on board. That meant we had a place to strap in Esmé so we could eat our dinner in peace and watch two whole movies! It also meant that Daddy got to go lay down and take a nap in the row behind us.

There was a little delay for our final flight from Charlotte to Raleigh, and we had a delay in getting one of our bags back, but other than that everything went smoothly. There were no meltdowns from Esmé (or mommy!) and, best of all, when we got home everything was just as we left it. Our house was clean! There was a crib all set up for our daughter to sleep in, in her beautiful nursery! There was a clean bathtub to bathe her in that had a non-skid fishy mat so she didn’t nearly drown while bathing! More importantly there was hot water ;)!

Coming home was a breath of fresh air. It was like peeling myself out of pants that don’t breathe, and are too tight, at the end of a very long day, and climbing into my pajamas.

We are so grateful that we were given such an amazing opportunity to experience Europe, but we are even more grateful to have a comfortable home to come home to when the adventuring is through.

When Traveling With A Toddler Works, And When It Doesn’t

Traveling with a toddler is always a bit of a schlep, but we tend to think that it’s worth it. We love getting to show Esmé new places, and having her try new things. It can also be a risk. It’s easy to look at all the nice photos on Instagram and think that it’s all picture perfect. The truth is that sometimes it works out, and everyone has an amazing time. Other times you question your sanity for trying to satisfy your sense of wanderlust with a child in tow.

Generally we land somewhere in the middle, but in the past couple weeks, we experienced two situations that were so polar opposite of each other, I thought I would share. That way you can get an idea of what’s really going on behind those photos. Let’s start with Monaco:

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Monaco was a destination that my husband had been particularly excited to see. He loves Formula 1 racing, and was intrigued about all the hype of it being the world’s wealthy playground. I had a few reservations because I knew that it was a smaller place that a lot of people come to visit, and I’m not crazy about crowded cramped areas. However, I also was curious about this glamorous place I had always seen in movies.

The first hurdle was traffic. We were staying only a half an hour away in Saint-Paul, so we thought we would just make a morning of it, but what should have only taken a half an hour, ended up tripling due to traffic. We weren’t off to a great start because it was late morning, almost afternoon by the time we arrived.

Our moods improved once we found parking, and walked out to take in the views near the harbor. We were in a beautiful, new city, and we were excited to go explore!

IMG_4548Our next hurdle was finding a place to sit and eat, and a bathroom. The unexpected traffic made for very full bladders, and very empty tummies. We had brought our lunch with us, we just needed to find a place that was somewhat child friendly.

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This was a very fancy place and I was wary of letting loose our little monkey too near the nice shops and cars that were parked in front of the Monte Carlo Casino.

I tried asking a couple of people where the nearest bathroom was. The first man actually rolled his eyes at me, then looked away when he responded with mumbled directions (that weren’t correct). Obviously I was a serious waste of his time.

We split up then, so that my husband could get us settled in a park that we found, while I continued my hunt for a bathroom. The second man I asked worked at a very fancy jewelry store, and didn’t speak English, so I said ‘WC?’ ( which is what bathrooms are referred to quite a bit over here). He said ‘Ah, oi!’ and happily moved me to a window where there were very beautiful watches of a brand called IWC. I shook my head no, and then guessed ‘toilettes?’ to which he then pointed me, nicely, in the right direction.

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The park was actually a lovely reprieve from the crowds and craziness that is in Casino Square. Esmé toddled all around chasing after birds, only stopping to come back for a bite or two of food. Once we were all fed and had used the facilities, I wanted to take her on the LaDuree carousel. It’s a gorgeous white one that is right behind the casino. She had also really enjoyed the last one she went on, so I was eager to take her on another.

Third hurdle…getting on the darned carousel. There didn’t appear to be anyone manning the carousel, so I tried to flag down the waitress who was working at the cafe right next to it. She was very good at ignoring me, so I actually had to chase her down, get right next to her and ask if we could ride the carousel. She told us ‘It is for customers only,’ and hurried away to her two tables, out of 20 or so, that had customers.

Well! What was there to do but buy a macaron from the little shop and try again. I even asked the lady inside if we could ride the carousel if I bought a macaron. She was very friendly, and assured me that yes, of course I could. After I bought the macaron, I went, with bag visibly in hand, to stand near the carousel and try to catch the waitress, who still had only 2 tables, attention once more. Again, she was very good at avoiding me, and so after chasing her down, again, I said ‘We bought a macaron, can we ride the carousel now please?’ She responded saying ‘You have to eat here at the tables to get on.’ I plunked our cookie and our things down at the nearest table and then said ‘Now? Can we please ride the carousel now???’ and she finally had the guy let us on.

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At this point in time we were all feeling very disappointed with our trip. Casino Square was very crowded; there weren’t any beaches to check out really; and there were very few child friendly things that we found to do, one of which I had to fight to get my child on. Really, you’d think I was asking her to part with a limb or something. I realize that we are probably not the target clientele for Monte-Carlo, but that’s no excuse for poor manners.

Now let’s look at when we got to stay in a castle in the north of Spain:

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We checked into Castillo de Arteaga on the last night of a road trip back home after spending a week with family. We were on the fence about going out again after checking in to see the northern coast of Spain, because we were all a little tired. Once we arrived, and saw all the steps that led up to the check in area, we heaved a huge sigh before each of us grabbed a side of the stroller to carry her up (something we have to do at least once a day wherever we travel) until a woman came running out and said ‘No! No! No!’

She guided us to the elevator and took up the rest of our bags herself. The concierge showed us up to our rooms and told us that ‘The room you will be seeing is actually a suite. You have been upgraded because we have to think of the baby, and what will be better for you, and also other guests,’ before showing us into our room.

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You guys. This place was a castle. Well obviously it’s a castle, but the room they gave us was quite literally a castle. It was enormous! It was also the fanciest place I think I have ever stayed in my life.

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If you scroll back up a couple pictures to the one where I’m standing in front of the castle our windows were the ones right at the top, underneath the arches, so we also had this magnificent view. Of course once they showed us our room, we knew there would be no trip out to explore the coast. As Esmé would tell you there was far too much exploring of castle grounds to be done…

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Her personal favorite was the bathtub, which was big enough to walk in. She had the best time moving candles from side to side, and fitting the plug into the drain, and then pulling it back out again. They provided us with an actual plastic baby tub to use, but we filled up the big one instead and had ourselves a pool party :).

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A little later in the evening, when we heard our neighbors arrive in their room, we figured out why they let us have the suite. Our neighbors had three children of their own, that we could hear, so I’m pretty sure their strategy was to keep the noise isolated to one area that was farther away from other guests.

I don’t blame them. If I had a hotel that had a restaurant with a Michelin star, I think I would also try to keep the noise level to a minimum to keep my wealthy patrons happy. Even if they hadn’t upgraded us, the staff went out of their way to be helpful and friendly, and that really made the trip for us.

Monaco was a bust for us. I think in order to enjoy your time there you need to be child free and willing to spend some money. Then you can take everything in at your leisure, and go shopping or gambling in between.  Castillo de Arteaga, on the other hand, was beyond anything we could have ever expected; but we never would have gotten such a fancy room if not for Esmé.

Now you see. Sometimes traveling with a toddler doesn’t work out at all like you had hoped. Even though you have a few nice pictures, the trip ends up being a disappointment. Other times it works to your advantage, and the trip ends up being even better than you could have ever dreamed.