Thursday, August 30, 2012

Europe 2012: Spain (Part 1)

After spending a couple hours sitting among a group of Italian soldiers in the airport, I boarded my flight to Madrid, Spain.  I made my way to the metro, figured out how to buy the correct ticket and hopped on board.  After a few train changes and lugging my too-heavy suitcase up a flight of stairs (with a little help from a very friendly Spaniard) I found myself in the Barrio de las Letras, home base for the next 5 days.  Since mi amiga Kirsten would not be arriving until early the next morning, I had all afternoon and evening to entertain myself.  After settling into the apartment, I quickly set out to find internet, food and a much needed hair product.  I was pretty proud of myself for finding all 3 rather easily and didn't get lost!  It was fun wandering the streets, taking in the sites and just trying to absorb as much culture as possible.  I even stumbled across a really cute market, bought some delicious fresh produce and a few tasty baked goods.
The neighborhood
Cute apartment!

Great kitchen!

Cream puffs and amazing strawberries = happy me

Madrid scenery

 The next morning Kirsten arrived from her transatlantic (red-eye) flight.  We hadn't seen each other in 18 months so it was great to reunite!  We set out for breakfast and had a delicious meal of churros con chocolat, tea, zumo (fresh squeezed OJ) and pan de tostada.  Later we explored the Parque de Retiro which included befriending a cute kitten and a boat ride on the "lake".  After some more walking, exploring, stopping in at a few churches and lunch, we visited the market and bakery I had found the previous afternoon to load up on more goodies.  Then it was nap time!

Iglesia de San Jeronimo - a favorite church of the Royal Family

Met this cutie in the parque
Enjoying the sun, scenery and company 
Professional rower right here
Pork products, anyone?

Bakery display
After a little nap, we opened a bottle of wine, enjoyed the sunset from our tiny patio, then set off to find food.  We stumbled across a cool looking restaurant and ended up having a fabulous meal.  After dinner we did a little bar-hopping, came across more than a few sketchy characters but in the end we made it back to the apartment safe and sound.

Post tequila shot:  Who's idea was that?

Sangria at the club
 The next morning we were late risers.  After breakfast we spent a little time at the Caixa Forum, a free art museum with a famous vertical garden.  We also spent more time wandering around the streets of Madrid.  We then packed up a picnic lunch and headed off to see Plaza Mayor.  After lunch and a little window shopping, we stopped in a Casa Patas to make reservations for a Flamenco show that evening then headed back to rest up/prep for another night on the town.

Vertical garden at Caxia Forum
Picnic in the Plaza 
We made a quick change, enjoyed a glass (or two) of wine, then headed off to catch the Flamenco show at Casa Patas.  We settled in with some sangria and Marcona almonds to watch an amazing show.  Neither of us knew what to expect and both were pleasantly surprised with the entertainment.  The dancers and musicians were so into their performances and it made it that much more enjoyable.  After the show we went out for a dinner of tapas but were sadly disappointed with the food quality.

Sangria makes us happy!
Flamenco dancers
We still had another two full days together in Madrid so the next day we set out for Toledo.  More on our day trip and our final day in Madrid in my next post!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Europe 2012: Rome

Leaving Santorini we hopped a quick flight to Athens, waited a few hours in the airport then flew to Rome for our final destination.  In order to save money, we decided to take the bus to the center of Rome, rather than the train.  We saved about 20 euros but it took us over an hour to the get to the same spot (only 20 minutes on the train).  Ugh.  Well, we finally wandered along the dark, uneven streets to find our apartment rental.  Once checked in we headed out for dinner then called it a night.

Bus ride into Rome
Our first day we had plans to go to the Vatican Museum.  After searching for a well-rated pastry shop, we picked up some sweets for breakfast then took the metro to the stop closest to the Vatican.  We followed the crowds out of the station to St. Peter's Square.  After standing in line for security, we finally made it into the center of the square only to realize we were in the completely wrong spot.  However, we stumbled upon mass being led by the Pope, so we stood watching for a few minutes then made our way back out of the square and found the museum entrance.  The museum was amazing, filled with art and artifacts of religious and non-religious sources.  Of course there are the infamous Raphael rooms and Sistine Chapel, but there are also Egyptian Sarcophagi and Greek sculpture.  It took a few hours to go through the entirety of it and we enjoyed it all.  Unfortunately because of the Pope's mass, St. Peter's Basilica was closed when we completed our Museum tour.

If you look really close, you can see the pope in red on the steps

Raphael's The Transfiguration


Sarcophagus with a mummy inside

Rome as seen from the Vatican

Gorgeous, ornate and intricate - and it's a ceiling!

After a quick lunch and nap we decided to  venture out for a drink at an Irish pub.  Yes, we went to an Irish pub in Italy - that's my husband for you!  We had a drink, relaxed and chatted with the bartender for a while.  On the way back, we stopped in at Santa Maria Maggiore church which happened to be in the middle of mass.  We admired the architecture and art then sat for a few minutes to listen to the mass (not sure if it was in Italian or Latin).  It was a really cool experience!

The ceiling/wall of Santa Maria Maggiore


The exterior lends no clue to the opulent interior
The next day we walked all over Rome.  We started at the Trevi Fountain which was just swarming with crowds.  Yes, I threw in a coin in hopes to return!  After we wandered aimlessly along the nearby neighborhoods getting lost while looking for a place for lunch.  During our search we stopped off at the Spanish steps and snapped a few photos until hunger propelled us along.  We finally found a little sandwich spot and after a quick lunch made our way to the Pantheon.  Its cool interior was a welcome respite from the sun.  Thanks to our Rick Steves' book we learned a little about the rather interesting history of the structure.  I convinced Corey to continue our walk, cross the Ponte Sant' Angelo and return to the Vatican in hopes of visiting St. Peter's Basilica.  Too bad I wasn't really thinking about the fact that it would be slammed on a Sunday.  One look at the line snaking its way all the way across St. Peter's square and we quickly gave up on that idea!  The walk wasn't a waste though.  We got to see really cute, old neighborhoods and stopped for gelato along the way.

Trevi Fountain 
Spanish Steps


The Oculus of the Pantheon

Streets of Rome

Standing on Ponte Sant' Angelo with St. Peter's in the background
That evening we had our best dinner in Rome.  Not so much because of the food (which was good) but we also met a lovely couple sitting at the table next to us.  We struck up conversation and found out they were from Scotland and were spending one night in Rome before taking a Mediterranean cruise.  We chatted about Texas, Scotland, their travels and our travels.  When we told them about our plans to visit England, Scotland and Ireland in 2013 they got very excited and immediately offered their home to us to stay.  It was an amazing thing!  Without hesitation they said they would put us up in their home, introduce us to their children and grandchildren, or even just meet us for a meal or drink.  We concluded the meal with exchanging our contact information and wishing each other well.

The next day promised rain but cooler weather.  Corey woke up feeling poorly but well enough to trek about the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum.  We started at Palatine Hill and were lucky when the rain stopped after about 20 minutes of being there.  By the time we made it to the Roman Forum and the Colosseum the rain had completely stopped and the sun was peeking through the clouds.  I was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the grounds were.  There was an amazing amount of colorful flowers and green grass all over creating a stark contrast to the crumbling ruins.  It made it one of my favorite sites of our trip.

Palatine Hill

What a trooper!

Rocking the rain jacket

Flowers among the ruins
Colosseum exterior

Inside the Colosseum

Arch of Constantine
Unfortunately Corey started feeling pretty crummy after all the walking and sightseeing so we stopped off for lunch and went back to the apartment to let him rest.  Turns out we were done for the trip.  He just felt worse and worse throughout the afternoon and slept through dinner time.  We had planned on seeing Piazza Navona and Campo de Fiori that evening but it just wasn't in the cards.

After a rather sleepless night due to Corey having a fever causing him to toss and turn all night, we packed our things and headed for the airport.  I said goodbye to my poor, ill husband at security and tried not to cry as I watched him walk off.  He was heading home and I was heading to Madrid.  I couldn't help but worry if he would make it home alright.  In the best of circumstances he can let time slip away and has missed a flight before, so I was worried that being sick, in a foreign country and unfamiliar airport might be disastrous. Thankfully, he successfully made it on all 3 flights it took for him to get home.  And I made it to Madrid to meet up with a wonderful friend from PA school.  More on that next post.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Europe 2012: Santorini

After our time in Athens, we made an early trek to the port of Piraeus to catch a ferry to Santorini.  When planning the trip we spent lots of time deciding between flying or ferrying and when we finally decided to ferry there we had to decide between the "slow" vs "fast" ferries.  We went with the less expensive ferry which was supposed to take 3 hours longer but less chance of crazy sea-sickness because of the slower speeds.  Anyhow, we boarded, found our seats and settled in for a day on the sea.  Unfortunately it was not the best experience of our trip - we had screaming children sitting just outside our section and when they finally left they were replaced with whiny older American kids.  Corey also got a bit queasy for the last few hours so he was pretty cranky.

When we finally landed we boarded our taxi to the hotel.  We checked in and luckily one of the hotel employees lugged our bags down the 6 or 7 flights of stairs to our room.  The hotel was built into a cliff overlooking the caldera.  Our room was all the way at the bottom, right next to the pool.  We were upgraded from a studio to a 1-bedroom so we had a small kitchen and sitting area, plus our own deck with unobstructed views of the volcano and caldera.
Our ferry - was more like a cruise ship than I expected
Entrance to the hotel from the street
Looking into our sitting area with the bed behind
Our patio
View from our patio

We then walked to get a late lunch.  The front desk woman from the hotel (who is coincidentally from CA) recommended an absolutely wonderful location for our first meal in Santorini.  Corey's favorite part of the meal? Trying a Santorini microbrew called Yellow Donkey - he proclaimed it the best beer of the trip.  My favorite part of the meal? A delicious spread they served with fresh baked bread.  Corey even made friends with a few stray dogs outside the restaurant.  After lunch we spent some time relaxing on the patio trying not to fly away or freeze thanks to the crazy winds blowing across the island.  I enjoyed just taking in the scenery and quiet.

Corey's brew

Delicious bread & spread (plus isn't that wine jug cute?!)
Trying to stay warm and not blow away in the wind
 We watched the famous Santorini sunset from our deck then ventured off for dinner.  We decided to walk from our hotel in Imerovigli to Fira which was just under 1.5 miles of winding, rocky and hill paths.  After wandering along the narrow confusing streets of Fira, we decided on a busy place to eat.  Despite crummy service our food was delicious.  Unfortunately we made the mistake of walking back to our place.  It was dark, windy and freezing cold.  Plus we were walking uphill most of the way.  Luckily we made it back in one piece and turned in for the night!

Sunset - pictures just don't do it justice

Looking back at Imerovigli from the footpath to Fira

After sleeping late, we got dressed for our only full day in Santorini and caught the public bus to the village of Oia.  The "public" buses on Santorini are actually charter buses, however it was packed to the gills so we stood the entire trip up windy cliffside roads to Oia.  We spent a few hours walking up and down the streets doing some window shopping and even stopped in a Greek Orthodox church.  The church's plain white & blue exterior is nothing like its ornate and beautiful interior.  We were even brave enough to ask someone to take our picture!

Greek Orthodox church


That evening I had our hotel make reservations at a romantic restaurant in Fira with great views of the caldera and sunset.  Unfortunately because the wind was so strong and cold, we couldn't sit on the rooftop deck, but did get some good views on the 2nd level of the restaurant. It was still cold despite a tarp blocking the wind, so the waiter brought me a blanket!  The food was good but the views would've made it better.  We learned our lesson from the night before, so we waited around for the bus and it took it back to Imerovigli and walked/ran the short distance in the bitter cold to our hotel.

The next morning the sun was shining, the wind was replaced with a calm breeze and it was gorgeous out.  Of course, we had to leave the hotel before noon to catch our flight.  But I took full advantage of a few hours to lay out by the pool and catch some much desired sun.

Although the weather was not cooperative and somewhat limited our "beach" portion of the trip, we still really enjoyed Santorini. It's an island unlike any other: rocky, windswept and quite barren in areas but the white buildings set amongst cliff-side views and crystal clear waters make it a beautiful locale.  The food was wonderful and the people were friendly.  How could you not love a place with views like this?

Up next? Roma, Italia!