Madrid

A couple weeks ago we flew to Spain to do a road trip through parts of Portugal, and the south of Spain. I thought it would be fun to share our journey with you in the order we saw it, so that you get to travel along with us!

We kicked off our trip in Madrid, a city we never got to see when we were living in Barcelona. So, in spite of the jet lag, we were eager to get out and explore what the city had to offer…

The first thing we got to see while we were there was El Retiro Park, and it completely blew us away. I don’t know if it was the time of day that we visited, or the time of year, but the light in this place was incredible. It was literally golden. It peeked through trees starting to change color, and turned fountains into shimmering displays of light. All we could say as we walked around was ‘Wow!’ I wish we could have spent an entire day there.

Esmé also loved this park. Besides the fact that they had too many playgrounds to choose from, there were people and kids everywhere doing all sorts of amazing things. Some of them were skateboarding, some were rowing in boats on a lake, some were bicycling around, but her favorite were the rollerbladers. We actually sat down on a bench for awhile just so that she could watch them. Then she got up and started ‘skating’ around in her crocs in the dirt along with them.

The Palacio de Cristal, or Glass Palace, has to be one of the coolest treasures tucked away in this park.

I mean just look at this beautiful building! This park had all the beauty of the gardens in Paris or Versailles, the character of Central Park, but with a history and charisma that is all its own. Hands down best park we have ever visited. Ever.

On our second day in Madrid we went to see the Royal Palace. We made the mistake of assuming that the house was attached to the gardens, like in Versailles, and ended up paying to see something that wasn’t the main thing we wanted to see. As such we were tired by the time we finished the tour of the house and didn’t want to go and walk through the garden once we were done.

The Palace itself was spectacular, nonetheless. They only allowed photos in the entryway, but you can still get an idea of how beautiful the rest of it was.

This was the ceiling above where you walk up the stairs to start the tour. Just beautiful. Whenever you’re in old palaces, churches, or buildings in Europe, you have to look up. There are incredible ceilings everywhere! I never get tired of looking at them.

Our next stop in the day was something we promised to Essie for her good behavior inside the Palace. And honestly, if you know me at all, it was really a stop for the both of us.

Dessert!!! Specifically, hot chocolate and churros. Let me also clarify that in Spain, if you order hot chocolate, it is not what you will get here in the states. Not that it isn’t good here, it’s just that it’s a whole other level over there. The hot chocolate is more like a melted brownie. It is very thick, almost like a pudding in texture, and very rich in flavor without being overly sweet. The churros were perfectly crisp on the outside, with a soft moist center to soak up all the chocolate-y goodness. And now I’m starving. Seriously, so so good! Both Esmé and I were very happy campers after this pit stop.

After that we decided to walk back to our hotel, exploring as we went. We stopped at the Plaza Mayor to enjoy a calamari sandwich (my husband’s version of dream food), then continued wandering until we got to Gran Via.

I have to say that the street itself, although very grand and bustling, did not impress me as much as I thought it would.

I was much more impressed with all the buildings we saw walking there and back. Look at the movie theater! How cool a building is that? Esmé loved the giant spider.

Again, I’m always looking up, to see what treasures I can find. It was such a pretty city to explore. We made one more stop at El Retiro Park before calling it a day, and that was Madrid.

The next day we had to leave early to go and pick up our rental car to start our road trip. But before we started our drive to Portugal, we decided to make a stop in Segovia as I had heard about some pretty cool things that were there.

 

The first of which was the Aqueduct of Segovia, which alone made me glad that we went out of our way to this city. It was absolutely incredible. The stones are massive, and it is unfathomable to think about how it was constructed during 112 AD.

I could have sat and stared at this thing all day. It makes you ask all kinds of questions that you will never know the answers to. Like how did they move all those stones in an age where there was no machinery? Where did they get the stones from? How many people died because they didn’t have the safety measures that we do today? It’s the thing I love most about traveling to old places…thinking about the people who inhabited them and what their lives were like while they lived/worked there.

There was also an amazing castle there. We tried to drive up to see it, but the only parking was down at the bottom of the village in front of it. That’s the thing about travel. It’s impossible to see everything you want to see. You make a list with your top choices, pick the one you want to do the most, then hope for the best with the rest, especially with kids. It never ends well if  you rush through just to squeeze in everything that’s on your list. Believe me, we’ve tried.

So we waved hello and goodbye to the castle from afar as we got in the car to head to our next stop, Portugal!

 

 

 

 

An American Family In Paris

First of all, I know that this is long overdue. I have been putting off writing about Paris because I knew that as soon as I started going through all my pictures I would start getting homesick. Yes homesick. I can feel you rolling your eyes at me, but I’m telling you. It’s very much possible to have that achy, heart-longing feeling for a place that you do not actually live in. It’s a thing and it happened to me.

Second, we saw so much when we were there that I decided to divide it into two posts. This first one is all the touristy things that we got to see while we were there. First up, Notre-Dame Cathedral…

We actually visited Notre-Dame twice. The first time we were exploring the city with family, so we just walked around the grounds and admired the cathedral from the outside.

It was quite a rainy, gloomy day our first trip there, which made for a very moody experience. What with all the stone gargoyles glowering down at you and skeletal spires towering overhead.

Another cool thing we discovered was that in the back of the cathedral there was this beautiful little garden. (Esmé is pouting in the picture because there was a swing that was there, and there was also someone on said swing therefore preventing her from reaching full joy potential. Don’t worry though because about 5 minutes after we made her take a picture, the person got off, and she got to swing to her hearts content)

The second time we went we explored the interior, and the inside of the cathedral was just as impressive, if not more so, than the outside.

For me, churches are one of my favorite things to see when we travel. I think it’s because they are generally hundreds and hundreds of years old and there is so much history behind them.

It always makes me wonder about the kind of people who have come to worship, and what kind of lives they lived in whatever time they happened to be living them.

We got to see The Eiffel Tower!!! It is massive. It is breathtakingly beautiful. It is fabulously French. We went and saw it in the day time and were pretty flabbergasted until we saw it at night time…

Every night as soon as it’s dark, for five minutes, every hour, on the hour, the tower sparkles! We took a river cruise down the Seine and the boat was right next to the tower when it started sparkling. I can not even begin to explain how absolutely beautiful it was. Esmé loved it so much, she got upset any time it went out of sight on the way back. I’m pretty sure that it’s the closest I’ll come to seeing magic happen. It was spectacular.

Speaking of spectacular, we saw the spectacular spectacular! Well, we saw the outside. The reviews for this place were too mixed for me to actually pay to go and see the show, but it was so cool seeing the place that inspired one of my favorite movies.

The gardens in Paris are all so pristine! We actually figured out why while we were visiting the Luxembourg gardens. Do you see how there are chairs lining the lawn in the picture above? Well, those chairs are all around the gardens so that people don’t sit on the grass. They have these signs posted everywhere telling you to keep off of the lawns, and while we were there we actually saw security chase this woman out of the garden! He had a whistle and everything, so they take their garden maintenance very seriously.

When the grounds look this amazing though, I really don’t blame them. I honestly wish that I had taken more photos there because all the tree-lined promenades were so perfectly manicured you had to see it to believe it.

All throughout the garden there were these mini gardens, if you will. You would be walking along and all of a sudden it opened up into another perfect lawn with a sculpture of some sort in the middle, surrounded by beautiful flowers. There was literally perfection hiding in every nook and cranny of this place.

Esmé was happy because she got a chance to stretch her legs a bit and run around, as they had a huuuuge playground inside. Emile and I were happy because there was a little place just outside the playground, that sold the most amazing custard pastries. We all were happy because we ended the trip with a trip to Angelina’s for hot chocolate. It was basically like drinking a hot brownie batter. Heaven. The Luxembourg gardens were a smash hit for the whole family.

Versailles! I literally have to take a breath before I think about describing this place. Versailles is a gilded, very ornate, monster of a palace. It’s absolutely massive and is so over-the-top that it’s very easy to see why there was a revolution. You actually can’t get the whole of it in the picture frame unless you’re standing very, very, very, VERY far away.

You know what? I lied, because you see that building way up at the front there in this picture? That’s the palace. And not all of it is in the frame. Sorry guys. Though this was taken behind the palace in the gardens, so maybe it’s possible if you try from the front?

Here’s part of the back of the palace, and actually the middle floor of the central building is the hall of mirrors.

The inside of which looked like this. Pretty amazing, no? We got the audio guides and tried our hardest to listen to all the history about how magnificent this place was, and what went into making it.

However, Esmé thought it was a race to see who could get through the palace the fastest, so we really only caught snippets here and there. For instance we know that this was King Louis XIV’s chapel, but that’s all I got before I went running off to catch up to my little love.

You know what? That’s OK. Because as beautiful and amazing as the Palace was, the gardens were even better. They were so vast, that even though we must have walked 5 miles, we only saw a small bit of them. In the picture above, they literally stretch all the way to the horizon.

I could have happily spent a week here, wandering around exploring every square inch of the beautiful grounds. Esmé on the other hand could not.

I don’t know if it was the fact that she was sick, or the fact that we were doing this around her nap time, but she had a rough day.

Basically, this was not as big a hit for us as a family. My husband and I loved it, but if you have younger kids who still take a nap, this is a bit of a stretch for them. Totally worth it, mind you, but you will have a serious cranky-pants on your hands at the end of the day.

Last, but definitely not least…the Louvre! I really wish we had done a bit more research on this place because it’s massive. It is actually the world’s largest museum, and it’s impossible to see everything in one trip.

I think the reason why I didn’t bother to research the museum, was that I knew we were going to have our toddler with us, and I wasn’t expecting to see all that much. I know it’s super touristy, and probably reveals my lack of art history/ interest, but all I wanted to see was the Mona Lisa. Anything else that we were able to see would just be icing on top of the cake. So that’s where we headed first!

Everyone always talks about how disappointed they are because the painting is so small, and it’s too crowded, so I had low expectations. However I was pleasantly surprised when we made our way over to the exhibit. I mean, it’s definitely not the biggest painting there is, but I still felt like it was such a treat to see. It also wasn’t as crowded as I thought it would be. It was definitely the busiest exhibit we saw while we were there, but it was no where near the horror stories I’d read about online. So so happy that we got to see her!

We actually were able to see a lot more than I had anticipated. We saw Napolean III apartments (above), Venus de Milo, the Victory of Samothrace, The Coronation of Napoléon (an enormous canvas!), the French Crown Jewels (serious drooling), and we even got to see the original foundations of the Louvre itself in the Medieval section. Our trip to the Louvre ended up being the perfect way to wrap up our trip to Paris.

Something we learned by accident, because we had a late nap, is that it’s actually a lot better to go at night time, than first thing in the morning (This was also the case for Versailles, because we went early afternoon, around 2, and there was no line). We didn’t have to wait at all to buy tickets, and the line for security had maybe five people in front of us? I think we got there around 6 pm, and it was perfect. That may have also been why it wasn’t so crowded in the Mona Lisa room. Also they allow you to take your stroller inside (something we could not do at the Palace of Versailles)! It’s a bit of a mission going up and down lots of stairs if you’re not close to an elevator, but it was such a help for us.

Did we have a favorite after seeing and doing all these things? Hands down, all three of us loved the river cruise at night past the Eiffel Tower. It was kid friendly, so I was more relaxed because I didn’t have to worry about keeping her under control. They also had mini bottles of wine to purchase, so we sat, cuddled together (because it was freezing), and drank our wine as Paris floated by. It was magic.

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.