Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas Day, Florence

Sure enough, the old guy came and our tiny tree was overwhelmed with colorful packages. Given that Santa had to get through customs (he apparently is not an EU citizen), he could not bring too many gifts on this special day. But not to fret – there would be more gifts waiting in Spain when the Three Kings arrived on Jan 5 (more on that later). The kids didn’t seem to mind and were thrilled to play with their dragons, dolls and “neo-shifters”. At about mid-day, I decided to head out with Lou (Suzanne’s mom) for Christmas Mass at Santa Maria Novella, one of the prettiest churches in Florence. Lou’s only request was that we not walk too far, as her knees were bothering her. I told her not to worry, it was just a few blocks up the street. Now which street was that again? Venturing out without a map was NOT one of my finest decisions. We headed out in the general direction of the church, but a funny thing about streets in Italy – they don’t exactly run parallel. Some 20-odd blocks later and a lot of complaining from Lou, we started to hear church bells, but still could not see the church. When we finally found it, we were on the wrong side and had to walk 3 blocks further before we finally made it to the entrance. Sitting next to Lou, the church felt suddenly quite cold, and no amount of Hail Mary’s could warm things up. On the bright side, it was really beautiful church and we had the unique opportunity to view it fully lit up during mass. When mass ended, the guards came out to make sure we didn’t mingle too long or take pictures. We headed back home, this time on the right street. On learning that it really was only 4 blocks from the house, Lou swung her hand and hit me hard across the arm, causing my camera to fly into the street. She told me in the true Italian spirit of Christmas, she was saving a wack for my other arm! We returned home for a great Italian spread – risotto, proscuitto, strachino cheese, fresh bread, spaghetti with pomodora sauce, wine, olives, etc. and had a wonderful family feast. After relaxing in the apartment and taking the kids out to a plaza to play with their toys, we went out late that evening for a great Christmas dinner. The kids even got a small glass of champagne to celebrate and finished off the evening with huge scoops of fresh gelato and lightly fermented apple juice. Although thoroughly full at this point, Suzanne, Lou and I could not resist the homemade Italian almond cookies and poached pears in red wine with chocolate. Heaven!

Christmas Eve in Florence – Man’s Search for Fire(wood)

We didn’t quite realize how wonderful Florence was during Christmastime. It was no colder than Javea and we were blessed with crystal blue skies during the day. At night, all the streets were strung with lights, which glowed along with the colorful window displays in the shops. People were out and about, bundled up in their fancy wool coats, scarves and furs and it was a lively and festive atmosphere. In reality, it had taken us quite a while to get into the Christmas spirit. We didn’t get a tree since we were heading to Florence and the little plastic “Charlie Brown” version left by the property manager didn’t do much to get us in the mood. But the lights outside certainly did. I made a few forays through town in the hopes of finding a Christmas tree, but there were none to be found within the city center. Charlie Brown would have to suffice. Another puzzling thing was that there was no firewood to be found in all of Florence. One of my fondest childhood memories was huddling around a big fire with my family on Christmas Eve and I was hellbent on finding some wood. The “duraflame” style logs that they sell out here barely hold a flame and frankly didn’t work, even after dousing for hours with lighter fluid. I tried everywhere I could think of, but kept walking away, rejected. Nobody even had a suggestion for where I might find some. I even trekked out several miles to a lumber store, but they were closing for Christmas and turned me away. To not be able to procure firewood at a lumber store of all places was ultimate humiliation. However, as the man / “provider and protector” of my family, I was not going to let this setback bring me down. While mere mortals might have let the fire thing go at this point, I would ultimately prevail. It was time to beg… Now which of these restaurants has a fireplace or pizza oven??? I stopped in at the Dante Restaurant where we had dined the previous night. The owner was very kind and gave me 4 large logs and I hauled them home with a bounce in my step, whistling Christmas songs along the way. It didn’t even matter that the house filled with smoke, nor that the kids only had about 30 minutes to enjoy the fire before they had to turn in. We had a real fire on Christmas Eve. We laid out a dish of traditional Italian cookies and a glass of milk and headed to bed, anxious to see if Santa would make the long trek to Italy.

Enjoying Florence – What Museums?...Where’s the Gelato?!?

While Kim was here, we eased our way into a routine of waking up slowly, having a nice Italian latte (gotta love the coffee here) and then heading out to one of the many sites in town. Afterwards we would usually take a late lunch and then relax or shop in the afternoon before heading out for dinner at night. And somewhere along the way we would always squeeze in a stop for gelato. Frankly, the kids haven’t quite developed their palates for fine art, so the museums weren’t a big hit on this trip. If anyone, Kellen seemed to get the most out of it and by the end of our week, he carried a little notepad and would draw whatever caught his attention. For the most part, they seemed to enjoy seeing Michelangelo’s David but were more interested in any depiction of monsters or versions of hell (e.g. a section of the cupola in the Duomo). We took them to a Medusa exhibit outside the Ufizi, but they were disappointed that there was only one good depiction of the snakes on her head. They also got a kick out of climbing the 472 steps of the Campinela and seeing the views of Florence from above. We usually only had enough energy and patience (kids and adults alike) to hit one or two sites each day and decided not to push things. Hopefully, they got enough out of Florence to want to return again someday. When the evenings came, the real fun began – eating! The beauty of Florence is that it is almost impossible to have a bad meal here. Or a bad bottle of wine, for that matter. By far, our favorite experience was at “Il Latini” right up the street from us. We walked in to a cozy place with hams hanging everywhere. They saw we had 3 kids and promptly escorted us to a back room which at first was empty. We figured they wanted to keep the kids out of sight, but the room eventually filled to capacity. What was beautiful about this place is that I don’t think we ever looked at a menu. They just started bringing us things – plates of proscuitto, insalate caprese, crostini with chicken livers (delicious!) followed by 3 different pasta dishes. By the time the roasted lamb and beef came, we could hardly eat any more. The place was loud, raucous and fun and we loved the “don’t worry, we’ll take care of you” attitude to dining. We finished off our evening with a vin santo and biscotti followed by a nice limoncello and they even gave us a bottle of their house wine to take home. Had they not closed the next day for their Christmas Holiday, we definitely would have come back. The next night, Suzanne, Kim and I went out to another osteria while Lou fended for herself with the kids back at the apartment. At first our waiter was curt and somewhat rude, but we realized he didn’t speak English. After a while, another waiter recognized the situation and took over our table. He was animated and funny and he took a liking to Kim – touching her hair and giving her shoulder massages while he waited on us. Once again, we were treated after the meal with Italian liqueurs and a bag of biscotti on the house. It certainly pays to have pretty women at your table in Italy! Come to think of it, I definitely got props and admiring stares from the wait-staff as I walked in with a woman on each arm. It didn’t even matter that I was a foreigner – they just respect such things in Italy.

Back in Heaven, Florence, Italy

After spending a quick night in Pisa, we had a nice breakfast at the hotel and caught a train to Florence. Interestingly, the cab fare to get us 10 minutes to the train station cost as much as the entire family traveling one hour by train to Florence! It didn’t help that our family of six (including Suzanne’s mom) needed two taxis. You would think that we learned from our experience getting over to Europe from the States, but no, we still had to manage 10 bags between us. (Although our biggest suitcase was packed with Christmas gifts, supplies and wrapping paper). For me, that is one of the most stressful parts of traveling – especially with little kids who don’t always listen particularly well. We got to the Vigna Nuova street, but our apartment wasn’t ready, so we ducked into a small deli-style café down the street to grab a bite and wait. It was a small, crowded place, and we got lots of funny looks hauling in all of our bags and piling them up around us as if we were building a fort. Yikes, the ugly Americans return… I pointed to a number of items at the counter and soon we were feasting on a delicious sweet onion risotto, a fresh pasta lasagna, and focaccia with prosciutto, arrugula and a deliciously soft, tangy cheese called “strachino”. Ahhh, Italia!!!! Every single thing we tried was delicious and it suddenly dawned on me that the Coastal Spanish palate left a lot to be desired. There is only so much paella and calamari that one can eat. Apparently, Suzanne felt this way pretty much from the start, but I guess I was a bit slower to catch on. Kim met us at the café and we were thrilled to have her with us, even for a short time. We got to our apartment and settled in. While it was a bit old and in need of updating (read: historic 17th century palace?), the main room was huge and had a large fireplace – perfect for lounging around without feeling like we were on top of each other. We got settled in and then ventured out to explore the town. We were back in heaven, to be in the center of a vibrant city with history, culture and fashion. Once again, a shocking contrast to our experience in Javea – which seems to have more businesses shut down than open and about as much culture as you would find in one city block in Florence. Hey, at least here when the weather sucks, you can always duck into a museum or palace and ogle a Botticeli or a Raphael painting! And for stunning architecture, you just can’t beat the Duomo. It truly seemed that all paths lead us past the Duomo, and it appeared almost surreal in the low winter light. We would end up spending lots of time in the plazas around the Duomo, be it to rest our weary legs or to let our kids run around and burn off some energy. Not a bad place to play, but I’m not sure our kids quite realize how lucky they are!

Getting ready for Christmas, Florence, Italy

Ahhh, Italia….I must admit that we had many images of our move to Europe and one of the top ones is of living like the Italians. There is something distinct about Italy that is unmatched by any other European country we have seen. Some call it romantic, others call it “la dolce vita”, but whatever you want to call it, it is something very special. Getting here was another story, however. We had booked a villa in the Tuscan countryside outside of Cortona through our vacation club, only to find out that our club had fallen victim to the economic meltdown and was suddenly on the verge of bankruptcy. To help dig themselves out, they decided to abandon their Tuscany property. It’s one thing to passively observe our investment portfolio decline and hear periodic bad news from the States, but it is entirely different when you are slapped in the face from abroad. Our plane tickets were already booked, and Suzanne’s mom as well as her best friend, Kim Michelson were on their way out so we had to quickly scramble and figure out another plan. After a lengthy search on the internet, we found a large apartment in the heart of Florence. Housing 7 people in a city is not easy - as most European living quarters tend to be small - but apartment living by far beats any hotel options. Our place was located on one of the finest shopping streets in Florence, Vigna Nuova – home to Guicci, Prada, Versace, Gianfranco Ferre, Dolce&Gabbana etc.. Virtually every big name designer was within mere minutes walking distance. While Suzanne was absolutely thrilled, I on the other hand was mortified. The thought of us walking by these shops every day was more frightening to me than just about anything!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Valencia Weekend

Well, in spite of a number of Christmas activities in town, Javea has been feeling quite...small. And freaking cold. After a week of temperatures that barely broke 10 degrees Celcius and the never-ending bureacratic hassles to get our in-floor heating to work, it seemed like a great idea to get the heck out of here - perhaps recapturing a bit of the magic of Santiago? After going back and forth about where to go (Cuenca? Granada?) we finally settled on Valencia. Though only 1 1/4 hours away, it is the 3rd largest city in Spain and we haven't spent any time there yet. Besides, the thought of traveling far did not seem appealing. So we booked an apartment, packed the bags and headed for the Ciudad de las Artes y Sciencias to kick off the trip. This "city" is a vast complex of super modern buildings spread out over a huge area near the port. Our first stop was the science exposition center, where it was prohibited NOT to touch the exhibits. The highlight was the room of mutant animals where we saw a three legged chicken and twin goats and pigs that each shared one head, oh - and the three horned ram head! We told Casey that this is what happens when you marry your brothers. They also had a Marvel Comics exhibit, which interestingly was the same one we did with the kids in LA about 3 years ago but interestingly, they didn't seem to remember it. Yikes - I wonder what they will ultimately take away from their experience in Spain... There was a cute little kids construction area, where children could put on hard hats and pretend to build things, which kept them quite occupied. What we didn't count on, however, was that everyone was getting colds, and they pooped out pretty quickly. So off we headed to our apartment in the Barrio del Carmen, an area described as "funky and hip". What they forgot to mention was "run-down and grafitti-laden"! We parked the car in a very sketchy area, with drunks strolling the street and broken bottles everywhere. I went off to meet the rental people and we finally found our place - adjacent to a very colorful gremlin picture on a carport door below. Turned out the apartment was much more comfortable and nicer than the surroundings might have indicated, but we will likely choose another area next time around. Day 2 was a busy one - first off to the Oceanografic center - the largest marine park in Europe. As it was the middle of a holiday weekend, the place was packed and we seemed to be fighting our way through the crowds. Given all the aquariums we have seen, the kids did not seem terribly impressed and we ended up leaving early to get some food (as all the restaurants inside were packed to the gills). We headed to our next stop, the port where "Cavalia" was playing - basically a Cirque de Soleil show on horseback. Although the show has been getting rave reviews, both Suzanne and I enjoyed previous Cirques much more. Unless you absolutely love horses, this show is a bit slow. Let's face it, horses can't do backflips, and we became tired of watching them prance around backwards. Sure it was cool when they raced across the stage with the riders barely hanging on, but otherwise this show left us wanting more. Christian fell asleep halfway through and we were all weary by the time we got home. A good lesson for future trips - don't try to take on more than one big event per day, especially with sick kids. When we got back to the apartment and put the kids to bed, I walked out through the barrio del Carmen and it seemed much more lively and inviting than the previous night. There were all kinds of cool bars, lounges and restaurants. At 9:30, the places were just opening up, but the barrio was already full of people grabbing copas (glasses of wine) and tapas. Suzanne and I will have to get plenty of rest and come back another time without kids, as this looked like a great place to explore - reminded me a bit of the Mission district in San Francisco. Day 3 was to be another challenge - first the Circo Mundial and then an IMAX movie show. We had a relaxing, lazy breakfast at the apartment and then headed to the circus. This was one of three circuses in town, but offered an interesting mix of acts from well-known circuses around the world. There is something decidedly "un-PC about the circus - angry lions, hungry crocodiles in boxes, violent clowns and hoola-hooping bears among other amazing sights. I'm not sure a circus could be this "old-school" in the states anymore. Needless to say, it was quite enjoyable and the kids loved it. For me, at 1/4 the price of Cavalia, it was worth every penny! The IMAX show (Les Alpes) was very well done, but not particularly unique, save for getting completely soaked in a torrential downpour trying unsuccessfully to get there in time. In spite of staying in the heart of the older part of town, we didn't see too many historical sites this time around, given nobody had much energy for exploring (due to the kids colds and continuous heavy rain). Something to plan for on our next trip back. This trip was more about shows and exhibits - in fact it felt quite like being a tourist in LA, save for the fact that we only heard one family speaking english the whole weekend and the driving is perhaps even more stressful than LA as nobody pays any attention to staying within lanes. To say it is a free-for-all on the roads is an understatement! We were lucky to get out with only one parking ticket and one near collision.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Day Trip to Guadalest

We awoke to a spectacularly clear day and decided to take a drive up to Guadalest, a very small pueblo up in the hills above Calpe that is built literally into the rock. Perched almost 600 metres above sea-level, the houses and Castell (castle) of Guadalest overlook a wide valley which is bordered by the mountains (sierras) of Aitana, Serrella and Xorta. The Castell and the original houses of the village were built by the Moors during the Arab occupation (8th to 13th Centuries) and were accessible (as they remain today), only by way of a 15 metre long tunnel, carved in solid rock. Guadalest developed as an agricultural area, aided by the terracing of the mountain slopes and by irrigation systems put in place by the Arabs. The Moors were able to take advantage of this rocky setting to fend off the Christian attacks far longer than in other Moorish strongholds. I felt both tired and queasy as we made our way up the winding, twisty road to the town. It didn't help that I was out until 3:30 am the previous night (dinner till ~1 am and off to the bars afterwards) with some Spaniards from my gym class - and I was one of the first to leave the bars! I later learned that the rest of the group stayed up until about 6:00 am. Every time I start thinking I can hang with the Spaniards, I am proven wrong! As much as I would have liked to use the excuse that I am an old man, the truth is that some of them were as old if not older than me! This kind of partying must take years and years of training/conditioning. When do these people sleep? Fortunately for all of us, Guadalest was small and surprisingly uncrowded, so we took a nice leisurely stroll through one of the original homes and through the castell before having a quick bocadillo lunch in the pueblo and heading back home. This is definitely an area that warrants further exploration!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Exploring Cap San Antonio, Javea

We woke up to a huge rainstorm in Javea the morning after getting back from Santiago. Yikes, more rain? Then suddenly, the clouds blew past as quickly as they came in and the sun came out. It was almost shocking to see blue skies after so much foul weather in October. Perhaps this was a good sign for the rest of November... We packed up the kids and headed just over to the far side of town (above the port) to Cap San Antonio, where the lighthouse is situated. Kellen had gone there on a school field trip a while back and he wanted to go back to the "diamond mine" (an inconsequential pile of quartz crystals) to collect some more diamonds. So off we went, enjoying the sun and the spectacular views of the mediterranean and the town below. As much as we loved Santiago, it was nice to be reminded of the stunning vistas in our own backyard.

La Coruna, Galicia, as told by Christian Roy

Yesterday Daddy made us drive on a long car trip to go to the tower of Hercules. Hercules helped build it with the Romans but he wasn’t there today. We climbed to the top, but the workers were cleaning it and it smelled funny. We also went to the aquarium and we saw an octopus called “el pulpo” and the octopus got into the tank from the ocean water. When they get in, they can’t get out and there were so many jellyfish that they were going in a circle because the other jellyfish were coming and they couldn’t get out. In the other tank of jellyfish, one jellyfish got its tentacles on the other one. We saw another jellyfish that was dead and in a jar. And there was a seahorse that was very little and some freaky starfishes that were hairy. And then we saw something on TV, there was an eel that looked white and the shark was trying to eat it – and I think it was an electric eel. And there was a shark swimming in the water and it was going to eat a human, but it got the fish instead. Then Mommy, Kellen and Casey ate "el pulpo" at the restaurant. Yuch!!!! I went to the aquarium store and I bought a seal and named him “Santiago” - Santiago is the name of Saint James in Spanish. He was a powerful guy.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

31st Carreira Pedestre Popular Camino De Santiago

On our first night in Santiago I came across a flyer for a run to take place the following morning. I figured it might be fun to at least run part of the race. What I didn’t fully realize is that was one of the biggest public running events in all of Spain with almost 7,000 participants. The town completely shut down that Sunday morning- the route would wind its way through the entire town, covering 12.5 kilometers in total. As the masses gathered at the starting line, it was clear that this was a huge event. I stood back a ways from the starting area to admire the crowd and could feel the buildup of energy as the race was about to begin. . And what an experience it turned out to be... It took a few minutes after the gun went off to finally get through the starting gate and start running, and as I looked around, I could see countless waves of participants moving in unison, many of whom were talking, cheering or just smiling. After a few kilometers, the mass of runners began to quiet down and disperse a bit and people began to find their paces. As I was not running for a time, I decided to just soak it all in and enjoy this incredibly unique tour of Santiago. People were lined up along the streets cheering us along and I was quickly caught up in the excitement. I picked up my pace and decided that I was going to finish this after all – who knows when I might get a chance like this again. As we started working our way into the “casco antiguo”, I started to recognize some of the streets. To my pleasant surprise we were suddenly headed right past the plaza where our apartment was located and as I looked up I could see Casey standing on the balcony. “Hola Casey-cita!”, I shouted and waved as we passed by and I could see the thrilled look on her face when she recognized me and shouted, “Daddy!!!!!!!” and promptly ran inside to get her brothers. The crowds began to swell as the streets narrowed, and soon we were in the heart of old town, heading through the historic city center. I got goosebumps as we passed the last kilometer towards the finish line at the Praza do Obradoiro with everyone screaming and cheering. It was an exhilarating experience to finish in the main plaza. As I learned the following day, several top runners described the race as, “El ultimo es el kilometro mas bello del mundo” (the finish is the most beautiful kilometer in the world). The paper also stated that over 50,000 people had lined up to watch the race and cheer the participants. So much for a simple Sunday jog through town! Footnote: Interestingly, of the top 5 men and women finishers, all were from Africa - predominantly Kenya. David Kilel, the men’s winner clocked in at a stunning 34:47 (almost a half an hour faster than me!), and 3 of the men finished under 35 minutes. Also, after the main race, there was a kid’s run. Kellen and Christian wanted to participate, so we waited outside our apartment for the majority of the serious runners to pass by and then jumped on the course for a bit. As the kids turned the corner and saw the cheering crowds, they got very shy and decided to stop running. We pulled off the course and jogged a few blocks down a much quieter side street until they got tired. Casey on the other hand, was not to be shown up by “her boys”. On our return, she decided to give it a try and we headed off together holding hands. Unlike the boys, she was spurred on by the cheering crowds and probably made it 1 km, before I finally decided that the limelight should be focused properly on the final finishers and not on this very cute 4 year old “imposter” who had hardly broken a sweat!

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia

Ah…Santiago de Compostela – the final site on the pilgrimage to St. James Cathedral - or “Santiago’s Town”, as Casey likes to call it. Now THIS is Spain. Or at least this is the romantic image of Spain that we remember from previous trips, an image which led us to uproot ourselves and move all the way out this way. The guidebooks refer to Santiago as one of the more beautiful cities in all of Spain and they are absolutely right. Quite possibly the finest week of our adventure – one that has given us a moment to pause and reflect on what this trip is really about for us. Suzanne and I were vividly reminded of our trip through Extramadura many years ago, staying in the heart of old medieval towns, exploring the rich history, culture and cuisine that these towns have to offer. On some very good advice from our new friends Scott and Dee from Boulder (one of few American families also doing an adventure year), we booked an apartment right in the old town of Santiago. The week started off a bit auspiciously as we woke up the morning of our departure to torrential rains. Suzanne had heard that Santiago was one of the rainiest spots in Galicia and we were already growing weary of the rain in Javea. The prospect of spending a week’s vacation in even more rain while cramped in a small apartment with 3 kids sounded quite grim. The night before we had a wonderful dinner with our neighbors Richard and Carmen, and in true Spanish fashion, didn’t get home with the kids until almost 2 am! So needless to say, we were all just a bit cranky that morning. Fortunately, our flight worked out smoothly and to our surprise, we landed in Santiago under perfectly blue skies. How ironic that the town with 300 days of rain a year would be sunnier than the town which “claims” 300 days of sunshine! After the usual confusion that seems to be inevitable when trying to drive into a historic city center, we finally found our apartment and were once again pleasantly surprised. The apartment was huge, with 3 bedrooms, lots of open space and plenty of light. It was situated on the corner of a quaint little plaza right across from the Universitad Santiago de Compostela (yes, this is the real USC!) philosophy building and another apartment/hotel which once housed Ernest Hemingway. History was all around us and we were just a few streets over from the Praza do Obradoiro with its baroque and stunningly beautiful Cathedral. Our vision of living in Spain came to life, with shops and markets all around us selling local produce, cheeses wines and pastries (of particular note an almond cake called Tarta de Santiago) as well as wonderful, cozy restaurants with traditional Galician specialties. Oh and in spite of its touristic nature, it is seemingly empty of Brits and their EU expat counterparts. Seems like we have found our own little slice of heaven here in Santiago’s town!