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Tails From the Vienna Woods

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Our Swing through Spain. Part III: Toledo

The Toledo, Ohio, USA and Toledo, Spain connection is the oldest established Sister-City relationship in the world, dating to 1931, though their cultural relationship dates to the early 1800s.

As with our journey to Segovia, the Renfe high speed train whisked us to the Toledo train station in about 25 minutes, from where we caught a short bus ride into the city center.  Toledo is a medieval walled “city of three cultures,” where centuries ago Christians, Arabs, and Jews coexisted peacefully. Imagine.

 

Our visit to the former capital of Spain was spent wandering the narrow lanes, shopping (on a Sunday!  Yay!) admiring the architecture and soaking up the lively nature of the city. This is the Toledo train station, of “Moorish Revival” architecture style that was also visible through the city.

 

The Toledo Cathedral, spectacularly intricate on the interior. Alas, no photos permitted.
And the former Jewish Quarter, with its narrow and winding streets.

 

Toledo is a noted producer of Marzipan, and it seems, most of the lovely concoctions are made by nuns.

Too cute.

The Bisgara Gate leading to the main plaza in Toledo. In Marzipan.

A few more city scenes. Toledo, we found, is better experienced in person than through photo snaps.

The city loves its medieval history; it seemed that every fifth store sold swords, knives, and shields. No kidding.

Anna Grace and I walked out of a store to the sounds of a marching band!  The Jefferson Forest Marching Cavaliers from Forest, Virginia USA were marching through the streets of Toledo, performing a mix of holiday music and other popular tunes. The mood was festive–people lined the tiny streets while the police kept the main lanes clear for the band!  Fun!

 

Having spent more time shopping than anticipated (we were in search of attire for Honors Orchestra, as we had discovered Spain has more clothing stores that appeal to Anna Grace), we had to “make do” with cones of Spanish ham and manchego cheese as we raced back to catch our return train.

Before we knew it, our lovely city break was over. Like usual with our city breaks, we missed a couple of things here and there; could always have spent a little more time in one city or the other; and definitely could have benefitted from a “Spanish History for Dummies” tutorial beforehand. But isn’t that a purpose of travel, to learn and to be inspired?

 

Our Swing through Spain. Part II: Segovia

High speed trains whisked us from Madrid to Segovia in about 35 minutes. That is, the trains whisk passengers to the Segovia station that sits 6km outside of the city, in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully the #11 regional bus is timed to transport visitors to Segovia’s Old City in just 10 minutes.

The bus deposits visitors smack in front of the Aqueduct, the city’s signature attraction. I won’t spoil the engineering details for you except to write that they are impressive.

A few segments along the aqueduct are accessible for tourists to explore, and the underground route of the aqueduct is marked throughout the city.  Thankfully the area has not been (too) polluted with tourist tchotchke vendors.

 

Segovia Cathedral commands attention in the city center, and understandably so.

 

 

The cloisters were closed to visitors on our day; hence, the reflection from the door in the photo.

From the Cathedral the medieval lanes, lined with a good mix of pleasant stores and tourist crap, lead one to Alcazar, the summer castle home of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

 

We have come to accept that no matter where we travel in Europe, there must be at least one major attraction that is under restoration.

The rooms are simple and with intricate, shimmering ceilings.

 

Anna Grace is demonstrating the proper position for the knight; the asymmetry was killing me, but I thought better than to move him.

The Throne Room. Despite this being the site where Christopher Columbus secured financing from Queen Isabella for his new world adventures, there is no mention of the meeting anywhere in the castle.

View from one of the terraces.

An inner courtyard.

An inner courtyard with charming photobomber.

 

Segovia had a thriving Jewish population for almost 300 years until their expulsion in 1492 by the “Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella. Nice.

To our disappointment, the culinary offerings in Segovia were mostly limited to either the very pricey suckling pig (the local delicacy) or three course prix-fixe meals, both of which offered far more food than we were interested in eating. Thankfully, a menu board near the Jewish Quarter directed us to a Pakistani restaurant that we would not have otherwise spotted. And you know how we both love our curry.

After lunch, a little more wandering before catching the train back to Madrid.

Possibly the largest pimientos that we have ever seen.

Olive trees, as snapped from a train traveling 249km/hr. (~155mph).

 

 

 

Our Swing through Spain. Part I: Madrid

With three weeks on the winter school holiday calendar, a haphazard plan to escape the grey of Central Europe, if even for a few days, was hatched. Truth be, the grey doesn’t really bother us; Washington, D.C. isn’t all that sunny in the winter, either, but when great airfares to a typically sunny clime are available, why not soak in a little Vitamin D while you can?

Madrid was our destination. Anna Grace and I left the boys at home for a long weekend of endless college bowl games, movies and pub dinners, arriving in Spain’s capital on 1 January.

(More of) Barcelona’s Best

Barcelona is best enjoyed on foot. Sure, there are at least three hop-on-hop-off buses with routes that criss-cross the city to help you check off the Top Ten list of whatever guide book you’ve consulted, but that’s never been our travel style. Had we hopped on one of those buses, we would have missed this…
…and this, this, and this. And more.
The guide books do get it right, though, suggesting that one wander through the old gothic quarter. Beautiful sights at every turn.

Parks in Barcelona are not just parks.

Even the trees present themselves artistically.

Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf gate at the top of Parc Cuitadella
From the L4 station Barceloneta Beach is about a 15 minute walk; dipping your toes in the cool water of the Mediterranean soothes those tired feet.

La Rambla is Barcelona’s pedestrian street, stretching for a kilometer from the port to Placa Catalunya. It takes some doing to get beyond the annoying tchtochke hawkers and silly painted street artists, and to wade through suitcase-dragging cruise ship passengers turned loose for shore leave to find the beauty of this pedestrian mall, but the effort is worth it.

Whether one calls it boules or petanque, we could not help but be charmed watching the older Spanish gentlemen play the game.

A funicular ride and a cable car lift to the top of Parc Montjuïc rewards the foot-tourist with views like this and, as we discovered, more to see and do than a days’ worth of exploration on the walk back down can accomplish.

Some may be horrified that we passed on the “must see” Picasso Museum and its collection of little known paintings. We’re good with that. Instead, on the walk down from Montjuïc we toured another “must see,” Fundacio Joan Miro, a collection honoring one of Catalonia’s famous modernist/surrealist/magical realist artists. We’re always up for contemporary art because most of it makes no sense; the enjoyment for us comes in just looking at it in wonderment. Case in point:

If anything at all disappointed us with Barcelona, it was perhaps just a few too many of these signs lurking about.

Oh, Barcelona! The Fast Food!

Barcelona is a feast for the senses, none more so than the sense of taste. Paella was always a pleasant sit-down meal, because preparing the dish requires extra time (and thus more people watching); sitting for tapas required time, as well, as we could never easily decide from among the dozens of choices. We ate nothing on this holiday that was less than delectable, and for fast food we didn’t have to venture beyond botiga food or hole-in-the-medieval wall eateries, either.  Our kind of holiday.
The empanadas from the botiga downstairs set a high standard, yet somehow every empanada afterward tasted better than the previous….
…From “expensive” made from scratch beef empanadas (€3,00 each!) at a tiny-but-chic cafe in the trendy Barri El Born… 
…to the simple pollo empanadas in a not-so-trendy-and-chic Barri where the waitress at our outside table cautioned me to wear my camera rather than place it on the table for safety, to Argentinian empanadas from a Carnisseria around the corner from our apartment.  Do not ask me what the difference is between Spanish and Argentinian empanadas; all I know is that these little handpies could create world peace.

Olives. Swaddled in olive oil, and a necessity at every stop.

As did patates de aioli.

There were some street foods we could not be tempted to try, however.

And others we enjoyed whenever the mood inspired us.

La Boqueria, Barcelona’s city market was necessarily a destination. So many temptations, only a few of which we indulged in.

Paper cones and sticks of freshly sliced Iberian ham, chorizo, and Manchego for mere €pennies. “Taste a little bit of Catalonia” we did. 

Finally, one of the most unexpected treats came from an old-fashioned Xurreria tucked somewhere in the Barri Gotic that we will never be able to find again. Homemade Cheetos!

Oh, Barcelona.

Sagrada Familia and the Barcelona Cathedral

We awoke early to join other morning birds for the first entry of the day at Barcelona’s famous church, consecrated as a minor basilica only in 2010, and of course a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Inside, just a few dozen of us had the space to ourselves, the sunlight creating its own music to accompany the Gregorian chants drifting through the church. Sagrada Familia was designed specifically not to have an organ; Guadi preferred the church be filled with the sounds of people.

The Nativity Facade of Sagrada Familia is perhaps the most well-known. 

In the center of the old, medieval quarter of Barcelona is its cathedral. No lines or fees to enter, no tour buses disgorging mindless camera clickers, just a snappy guard rejecting visitors who were not properly dressed to enter an active house of worship.

 The lighting in this cathedral was appropriately theatrical. Gregorian chants were not necessary to feel transported in time here.

The church is dedicated to Eulalia of Barcelona, its patron saint, who at the age of 13 suffered martyrdom during Roman times. In the cloister of the church roam 13 white geese, in her memory.
Lines, or no lines, visiting the Barcelona Cathedral and Sagrada Familia are highlights of our holiday.

Gaudi This, Gaudi That, and Paella for Lunch. It Must be Barcelona.

Modernista fun and whimsy was the order of the day, along with tapas, paella, and lots and lots of walking. Barcelona, even with its efficient transportation system, is not a city for those who do not walk. We like to walk.

Our to-and-from the apartment takes us past Sagrada Familia. In the morning light the basilica sparkled. No tour today, though.

Some of Gaudi’s other works were on the top of our agenda today. We were practically first in line for Casa Mila (La Pedrera) with its fanciful chimneys, and most enjoyed our time on the iconic roof terrace.

A very nice retired couple from L.A. took our photo. They were “somewhere” in the middle of a Mediterranean cruise of various ports and had two days shore leave in Barcelona. The movie, “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” immediately sprang to mind when the husband could not recall which port they had just come from.

 Camera-shy, she is.

Casa Battlo, further along the boulevard from La Pedrera tempted us, but the long, long, long line to enter the building did not. We are finicky travelers this way.

Park Güell to the rescue! A UNESCO Heritage site, the park was designed to offer peace and calm, a small point lost on the hundreds of us who climbed, and climbed, uphill to the park to jockey for the right photo op on the sea serpent bench and elbow one another for a pose with the resident mosaic lizard on this sunny afternoon.

The park is like what Queen Frostine’s palace in the game CandyLand might look like if ever architectured for real life.

The remainder of the day was given over to a paella lunch at a sidewalk table overlooking La Rambla, a lengthy tree-lined pedestrian street in central Barcelona that is popular with tourists and time weaving through La Boqueria, Barcelona’s city market. At La Rambla’s southern end passengers from cruise ships disembark at regular intervals, sometimes dragging suitcases and looking a little confused; and in between there are regular tourists, tchotchke hawkers, street vendors and presumably ordinary Barcelonians, all making for excellent people watching.
Oh, Barcelona.

Salutacions des de Barcelona!

The AIS fall break is upon us, and with one of my guys chairing meetings all week and the other finalizing college applications, we girls hopped a flight to sunny Barcelona for a short city break. After settling in at the (amazing) apartment we wandered out a little for an introduction to the city.

We are near the famous Sagrada Familia; this is but a teaser of the back of the basilica as the afternoon light would not have made for good photos otherwise. Plans to fully tour the structure are on the agenda for our visit.

 In the meantime, this mosaic in the subway will have to suffice.

Speaking of subways, there is a moving walkway in one of the major transit hubs! (We are easily amused, I guess.)  Barcelona’s subway has the urban grit and liveliness typical of the subways in Paris and NYC; a distinct opposite from the subdued orderliness and glamour of Vienna’s public transportation. (And, the TMB is less expensive than WienerLinien.)

We strolled ever so briefly down part of Passeig de Gracia, one of Barcelona’s grand boulevards and a good landmark for navigation. Buildings in Barcelona are gorgeous.

The boulevard is also home to many of Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces, including Casa Mila, first up on our sightseeing later this morning.

Tapas bars are here, there, and everywhere. We collected a tapas chart from one of the outdoor tables to study on a bit. Having fared well with our selections from conveyor belt sushi bars in Tokyo a few years ago I don’t think tapas will be a problem; we just want to be prepared.

Closer to home, in the botiga (market) downstairs in our apartment building the storekeeper was selling homemade empanadas as the daily special.

Words can not describe the savory, beyond delicious pastry that we devoured last night. Can’t wait to see what today’s specials are!

Barcelona. A pretty place to call home for the next few days. 

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