Madrid in a Day and a Half

We had a very short stay in Madrid. We arrived in the late afternoon Tuesday and were gone by Thursday, but we packed in the fun. We had debated going on to Toledo from the train station, but decided we had had enough train for one day. Instead, we dropped our luggage, and decided on Vietnamese food for lunch, yum! On the way there, we discovered a flamenco spot and that gave us an idea. But first, we walked over to El Prado, about 20 minutes away. As you know, we like to walk and it gives us a great feeling for a city quickly.

El Prado is, well, a great, giant Spanish art museum. I was excited to see The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (I think he is named after a literary detective, right?). Sorry, I don’t take pictures of paintings, there are much better versions online. After about an hour and a half (which seems to be a good museum limit because it gets too overwhelming after that), we headed to El Retiro park. I love a big city with a beautiful central park and Madrid did not disappoint here.

Who doesn’t want sour gummy worms with their Aperol spritz?

Since it was getting on 8 p.m., it was time to think about dinner. As you might imagine, tapas are abundant but we knew we were going on a food and history tour the next day, we opted out of patatas fritas. The non-tapas dinner: pizza and an Aperol spritz! We had been debating whether to go to the flamenco show and we went with our default answer: We’re here; why not? There was an option for dinner, but we skipped that. We did get appetizers and a glass of wine, because I needed more to drink after that giant mojito. The show was not what we were expecting mostly because we didn’t know what to expect. I was thinking castanets and frilly dresses. Wrong! The dance was passionate and there was a lot of stomping. We got an explanation (in Spanish and English with an Australian accent) and found that the dancers were improvising and encouraging each other as they went. The place was Las Carboneras. The venue is pretty small and intimate, which made it all the better.

The lesson: Yes is a good default answer on vacation.

Wednesday, we did our food and history tour. Our guide, Abel (accent on the second syllable), was chill and fun. We got some fun information about the founding of Madrid by the Moors (aka Arabs) and the inquisition. Here’s a hint for all you “outside Catholics, inside Jews” or Muslims: Eat the pork or you’re a goner! We got to go inside the world’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation (according to Guinness), Restaurante Botín. The oven fire never stops burning. Maybe it’s a secret eternal flame. We also learned that businesses that have been running for at least 100 years get a gold plaque on the sidewalk.

Por sopuesto (that’s of course to you non-Spanish speakers), we did a lot of eating and drinking including Spanish vermouth and tinto de verano, which is basically a Spanish wine spritzer: red wine with Fanta limon and a splash of vermouth. Very summery and refreshing. Lots of meat (for Jake), cheese, olives. Apparently vegetables are not a thing here on the Iberian Peninsula.

Our plan had been to go to Toledo (not the verb tense). The tour ran a bit long, so we hopped in a cab to get to the train station. On the way there, I tried to buy tickets and found that the train was sold out. Who wudda thought? I guess there’s a downside to spur-of-the-momenting everything. Oh well. We decided that getting to Toledo at 5:30 wasn’t worth it so we walked back the way we came, took a short break at the AirBnB and headed out to the National Archeological Museum, where we had two hours until closing time. We used both.

We did stop and have a drink and I have to say that the drinks in Madrid (at least at the place we stopped) were STRONG. Wow. Plus, I got a chance to misinterpret some Spanish, which is always fun. We couldn’t decide whether the waiter was telling us we had to leave quickly because they wanted the table for diners or that she was leaving soon and we should go inside if we wanted to order more. It was the latter. OK, good for us!

Having been all tapased out, we elected to dine on … Vietnamese food! It was delicious the first time and equally delicious the second. You may have trouble remembering the name, but if you can remember Vietnam Restaurante and you’re in Madrid, give it a try.

Thursday was a travel day. We ate a yummy breakfast at Federal Cafe, hung out in the sunshine for a bit and then headed to the airport. I forgot that you often can’t check in more than 2 hours before the flight, so we sat a bit. Then we waited on line for about 45 minutes for one issue or incident after another (thanks TAP). We weren’t stressed. Everyone was on our flight and we figured the plane wasn’t taking off empty.

We are now in Lisbon and having a fab time. Stay tuned for the Portugal edition coming soon.

Gaudi Day

Can’t go to Barcelona and not Gaudi. Sunday we hit the highlights: Park Güell and Sagrada Familia. We knew we had to go to the park, but didn’t really know what to expect. It’s beautiful and there’s even some shade. Very important in the almost solstice day sun.

Jake rides and escalator when there are perfectly good stairs next to it.

We walked. You don’t have to. (More on our crazy choices to walk later.) There’s a big hill and many steps BUT there’s also a couple of escalators. There’s also a nice bus that goes right there from the corner of our street, but why would we do that? Up we marched. The entrance to the park is at 150 (492 feet); the top is at 210 meters (689 feet). No me importa. It’s good for us. Jake is young and I am planning to go to Patagonia.

Anyway, the park is amazing and very Gaudi. We wandered around and thought we should go into the Gaudi Museum, but tickets had to be purchased online (pretty common these days) and the site was being finicky, so we gave up. We use the “let’s walk this way” method of exploration. There are several different suggested routes through the park, but we chose to wander. The path is mostly circular and we got to hear some lovely salsa music near the viaducts. Gaudi was inspired by nature, tried to consider ecological needs when he designed and was not at all a fan of straight lines.

Gaudi was very religious and very political. He was a Catalan separatist who even spent a few nights in jail after being arrested at a protest. We have seen the separatist flag flying around town, but, despite some fierce opinions, Cataluña is still a part of Spain. He also was kind of a weird dude. Because he had rheumatism and his doctor suggested vegetarianism, he ended up living on lettuce, olive oil, and some nuts. In his later life, he became a recluse and his shabby attire contributed to his death. He was hit by a tram, but nobody recognized him and he did not receive adequate medical attention because people thought he was a homeless person.

From the park, we walked back down the hill and ran into a little Lebanese restaurant. Yum! There are only so many patatas bravas one can eat. Hummus and falafel hit the spot. If you happen to be in the Gracia neighborhood, give Sannin a try.

While there, we debated whether we should go inside Sagrada Familia. Yes. We should. We looked at a couple of pics online and promptly bought tickets. Wow! The light streaming through the stained glass is breathtaking. Construction on Gaudi’s masterpiece cathedral began in 1882 and was supposed to be finished in time for the centennial of his death in 2026, but Covid had other ideas.

My pictures cannot do it justice, but at least you can get some idea.

Between Gaudi jaunts, we stopped at a place I just happened to notice on the map: Plaça de John Lennon! Well worth the few extra blocks. It’s a plaza named after John with a small playground and murals. I took a few photos.

Don’t Do As I Do, Unless You Like Stairs

Today, Monday, was our last day in Barcelona. We stopped back at the La Boqueria market to wander by ourselves, since we had only been there on the tour. You really can’t beat watermelon juice that is just pressed watermelon. Yum! We walked around and took in all the foodie sites and we might even have some treats to bring home.

Steven (you remember him, he’s usually on these trips) had reminded me that there is a cable car, or telefèric, to the top of Montjuïc, where there is castle with incredible views of the city. You can take the Metro to a funicular that drops you right at the cable car. Do you think that is what we chose? If you do, you don’t know us. We walked. The market was halfway there so it made sense to us.

Today’s total, according to my semi-accurate phone health data stands at 24,160 steps, 9.2 miles, 34 floors. Not all at once, but a fair amount of climbing to the cable car.

If you are smart, you will take the funicular up and walk down (or don’t walk at all). You can also take the funicular to or from the top and only do the cable car one way (or not at all). We did the round trip and thought it was fabulous. The castle, with a separate entrance fee, offered more amazing views plus castles are cool! Mostly, you are outside the castle so don’t leave your hat and sunglasses in the locker thinking you’ll be inside like I did.

We did choose to take the funicular and Metro back. We hadn’t been on the Metro yet and we discovered that it’s very clean and easy. We had Venezuelan arepas for lunch at Tumatey. Muy rico! and finally, went to a bookstore to buy a Catalan Pepa pig book for the grandbaby. She’s going to speak many, many Pepa languages before we’re done.

After a break, we headed out for our last night and briefly debated going into Casa Batlló, which is only a couple blocks from us, but the 35€ price tag scared us off. Maybe next time.

Tomorrow, we take the train to Madrid.

24 Hours to Barcelona

Plus, a busy Saturday

Door-to-door for my nephew Jake, that is. He took and early flight from Chicago Midway to Dulles. I met him there, so we were both early since Steven is still on grandpa duty and he didn’t want to get stuck in DC traffic and not be at daycare on time.

Then, lightning delayed the flight two hours. No one’s fault, of course. One cool aside is that we had a woman pilot! I still don’t rate United very highly. The food on Delta is a tiny bit better (it is airplane food). My breakfast snack was the nameless grain salad they gave me with my dinner the night before since I ask for a vegetarian meal. I’m not sure why yogurt and a granola bar are not vegetarian, but ice cream with the special meal is. Or why I needed a gluten-free cookie. Don’t ask how it tasted — I didn’t try it. Jake’s food theory is that there is only one special meal and it covers all food issues. He may be right although they offer a long list of options. Also, since I’m being picky, if they are going to give out headphones for the inflight entertainment, they may want to at least make sure you can hear something through them.

We landed about an hour and 20 minutes late. We didn’t have anywhere special to be, so that was fine until we saw the immigration line. We spent two hours waiting to get into Spain. At least our luggage was waiting for us. Then we saw the cab line, sigh. However, that moved very quickly and soon we were checking in. For Jake, that was about 24 hours on the road. My assessment so far: It was worth the wait!

With time to spare, we stopped to get some caffeine and then walked over to Sagrada Familia, which Jake was immediately impressed with. Who wouldn’t be? We wandered and got the lay of the land. Everyone told me Barcelona was beautiful. So far, we’ve only gotten a small taste of it, but how can you go wrong when every time you look up, there’s a Gaudi rooftop?

Last time, after much-needed showers, we discovered that around the block from us is a wide street full of outdoor dining spots. Tapas and wine it was!

Saturday

After 12 hours of sleep, we were refreshed and ready to go. We headed out toward the Picasso Museum figuring we’d find food along the way. Yes we did! We ended up at Zenith, which turned out to be a chain with cafes in Madrid and Lisbon as well. Hmmm, this may work out. The food was great. We shared shakshuka and berry pancakes. (Warning: the pancakes are SWEET, but the portions are European, so you won’t feel too bad about it.) Delicious!

Going to a museum that focuses on one artist gives a different understanding of the work. The Picasso Museum has a great collection of his early works and then uses video to show either close ups of his brush and color technique or what infrared photos showed of the paintings underneath paintings.

The highlight for us was the 1957 Las Meninas series, in which Picasso reinterpreted the same scene many times in many paintings done on the same day. The museum is housed in what were five palaces built in the Catalan Gothic style. The entrance feels like heading into the bat cave.

We spent about 1.5 hours there, but I feel like I could easily go back. Neither of us was sure how we would feel about the museum, but we figured it was a must and it was.

Next, we were off to a paella cooking class with Just Royal BCN. First, we did a tour of the famous La Bouqueria market. I love European food markets and this one was as amazing as the rest. Because we were with our chef, we got some samples and I am sure we will be back for the turron, which is sort of nougat, sort of marzipan. (Yes, Steven, you will love it!)

The class itself was led by Teresa, who was fun and a great teacher. We tasted a variety of tapas and got explanations about them, made Spanish omelets and Catalan creme plus, of course, paella. Group activities can be a lot of fun if you have a good group — and we did. Mostly Americans since it was in English, but also a man from Morocco and a woman from Jersey (the real one).

We asked Teresa what to do after the class, since it ended at 7. She suggested the jazz club just downstairs from the class, which was in in Plaça Reial. For various reasons, we ended up at a different club, Harlem Jazz Club, but it was waaaaaay too early for Barcelona, so we decided to wander. We headed over to the waterfront and just took in the sights. I know you want more photos, so see below. The building being renovated so classily with the Samsung ad hiding the scaffolding is the Catedral de Barcelona.

Finally, we were off to the Harlem Jazz Club to hear … a blues band? At first, we were a bit disappointed, but Chino & the Big Bet exceeded our (admittedly low) expectations. They were a bit bluesy, a bit jazzy, a bit swingy and Chino is full of energy. The Big Bet seems to be a revolving duo of bassist and drummer and Chino has been around the Barcelona scene for at least a decade. He speaks great English too, since the crowd seemed to be mostly English speakers.

They ended the night by leaving the stage with their instruments setting up in front of the bar and playing “Sweet Sue Just You.” Thanks! It was 2 a.m. We walked back to our AirBnB and crashed.

The Old and the Restless

Gratuitous bear statute pic for the granddaughter. Somewhere near the DC zoo, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the zoo.

Surprise! We’re restless in our apartment in Baltimore, so Friday we went to DC to wander around, but first we had a very important errand. We visited the Polish consulate to apply for my EU passport. It was a bit of a disappointing experience in that the room was tiny and stuffy and the man behind the plexiglass barely spoke as he stamped away at my documents. The good news is that he didn’t ask why I speak not a single word of Polish plus we will be able stay in the EU as long as we want (if we want). Aside from that, we took a long walk and did the math in our heads about how house poor we were willing to be to live in a city. I’ll let you know if we ever figure it out.

We did have fun strolling around and noticing that every apartment that is for rent is a luxury apartment. Good for us. Who doesn’t love luxury? Do you think they come with a butler or house cleaner?

We definitely like the restaurant variety and the ability to get around by Metro. We didn’t like the traffic trying to get back to Baltimore. Apparently it’s not only construction season, but car crash season as well. We have noticed that many cities are great as long as you stay in them and don’t drive.

One downside to being out of the country is a lack of baseball, so we’re taking advantage, especially since we are three blocks from the park. We went to a game last week and then decided to hit another on Friday after DC. It was Orioles vs. Guardians (who are from Cleveland and used to be called the Indians) and we were watching a no hitter for 5+ innings (guess which team didn’t have a hit). The Orioles tried to make it a game in the eighth, but they came up short and lost 6-3. Oh well, it was a beautiful night for a game and we got free T-shirts.

Saturday, we did the digital nomad thing and hit the storage locker to swap out a few things. It’s difficult to keep track of where everything is and what climate we need to prepare for. Afterwards, we had a belated birthday dinner for Steven at a restaurant called Cypriana. The hummus was amazing, the rest of the food was fine, but uninspired. We are getting spoiled in our international travels. We aren’t “foodies” in that we don’t want fussy or overly fancy foods just simple food done well.

Today, we decided on a mini-roadtrip to Frederick, about 45 minutes west of Baltimore. It’s a cute little city with a few breweries, a bunch of restaurants and stores plus a walkway along a creek lined with more restaurants, etc. We had a delicious lunch at JoJo’s Restaurant. Getting really good vegan food around here is difficult, but my vegan power bowl was tasty. There are only so many fake burgers a person can eat! We wandered (as we are wont to do) and then got a flight of beer from Attaboy Brewery. The day was perfect: sunny, low humidity and about 80 degrees, so we were glad for the chance to put the top down on the trusty Saab and hit the road.

It was especially nice because the AC in our AirBnB is out and it was a bit balmy in here. We do have excellent hosts, however. They came by with a portable AC unit and then refunded us $200 for our trouble. Sometimes, you just meet good people.

I’m guessing the next time I write, it will be from Barcelona. I’m very excited, since I have never been there, so if you have any tips for me I’m happy to accept them. Or any for Madrid or Lisbon, too 🙂

Planning time

I have a new spreadsheet, I am so excited! We are now planning our next trip; seven months in South and Central America. We will be leaving in early October and expect to be back in early May. Our plan is to stay for six plus weeks in each place as that seems to give us time to settle in, get used to the place and find a routine. If we had more time (or fewer places we want to see) we would probably stay longer. Even at seven months, we are finding we do not have enough time to visit everywhere we want to go.

Happiness is a good spreadsheet

Our plan is actually starting at the end of June, when we decamp from Baltimore. It looks like this:

July – We are heading back to Chicago for one of the two months when you can reasonably hope that there won’t be snow to visit Sue’s family and all our Midwest-based friends.  We are driving the (hopefully?) trusty 2006 Saab.

August – Our friend, Paul, from Paris, has asked us to cat sit for three weeks. Poor Seuss needs us, and we are not the kind of people to leave a cat without his favorite cat sitters. 😉. After Paul returns, we are going to take the train through the Chunnel and visit my daughter Abi, and perhaps (if we are deemed worthy) meet her boyfriend. We expect to spend about a week there, and I am sure we will be playing Dead Person Bingo at all the cool cemeteries and, of course, at Westminster Abbey. We are thinking we might visit Winnie the Pooh’s head and a few other odd museums if we have time. But mostly we are there to see Abi.

September – Our return flight is back to Chicago where we will pick up the (hopefully still working) Saab and drive to Washington, DC where we will be staying for the month.  We will spend more time visiting with my son, our daughter-in-law and, of course, the grandbaby. We are also trying to decide if we like DC or the environs to settle there once we are done with our travels.

Buenos Aires

October and November we will be in Buenos Aires. We are once again hoping that the (perhaps still running) Saab will get us down to Florida, where we are storing the car for the duration of our trip. During our time in Argentina, we are planning to head to Brazil and meet my very intrepid mother who has decided that she is going to visit my Brazilian brother (short version of a long story is that Vitor was an exchange student in high school and lived with us, so he qualifies as family) and his family. It is her 85th birthday and I am just amazed at her bravery at making this trip. A special thanks to my sister, Judie, and Vitor’s daughter, Alice, who have agreed to play Passepartout to her Phineas Fogg.  We also intend to visit Iguazu Falls, the wine region around Mendoza and perhaps cross over into Uruguay for a visit to Montevideo.

Santiago’s skyline

December and January – We plan to take a couple of weeks and go wandering in Patagonia. We will update with an itinerary once we have figured that out. The remainder of December and all of January we expect to spend in Santiago, Chile. That too is far enough out that we haven’t really wrapped our brains around what we will do with our time there, although I am pretty sure that we are going to spend a moment or two (or even more?) in the Chilean wine country.

I can’t believe they named a bean after this city!

February and most of March we will be in Peru. Once again it is pretty far out to have a firm plan in place, although we are in the process of booking a trip to Machu Picchu. Sue would prefer the four-day hike on the Inca trail. I would prefer to stay alive. So we have compromised and have found a trip that does a one-day hike and then you go on a train for the rest of the way. We are also thinking about going to Lake Titicaca, but have heard mixed reviews. If anyone has any thoughts on it, please let us know.

Mexico City – the final stop on this trip (unless we change our minds).

For our final stop, which will be for part of March and then all of April, we will return to Mexico City. We haven’t even thought about our plans for that yet. But we do have just a little bit of time.

I am hoping all my Spanish lessons will lead to my ability to have at least a first-grade level conversation with someone, somewhere on our travels!

Pardon the Interruption … It’s Family Time

When we last left off, we had arrived in Florida. We spent Mother’s Day there with Steven’s mom (Hi Mom!!), Aunt Es and Robin (Hi to you beautiful ladies, too). On Monday after Mother’s Day, we began the 15.5 hour drive up to Baltimore for our granddaughter’s birthday. She’s 2 and the cutest baby ever. I dare you to argue!

Fifteen hours is a long way, so we made it 12 and decided to stop. Here’s a hint: If you make the drive from South Florida to Baltimore, find somewhere to stop that is not Emporia, VA. I called it a one-horse town and Steven said I was being generous (extremely generous).

Obligatory Insta sign

We are now ensconced in a lovely AirBnB only three blocks from Camden Yards. Sadly, the Yankees were in town already, so dutiful wife that I am, I allowed Steven to drag me to a game, which also sadly, the Yankees won. The nice thing about being so close to a ballpark with a losing team is that it’s easy to get tickets. We decided at 6 o’clock to go to the 7:10 game and got great seats. Steven and his son had gone to the game that Monday and took advantage of the 1992-priced promotion tickets. Baseball for $18 a seat (The Yankees won both games! Gooo Yankees!).

Our next family event was my nephew’s graduation from University of Maryland. We thought we had lucked out when he told us we didn’t have to attend the whole school morning ceremony, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. We waited almost four hours to hear his name and watch him walk across the stage (which took 15 seconds or so), and that doesn’t count that we got there an hour and a half before it got started, which was already 30 minutes behind. Most of the basketball arena was empty by the time they got to him because the hungry, freezing masses started to leave after their loved ones walked. I feel bad for those last few grads, but we were all exhausted by then. It was wonderful to see the family and spend endless hours sitting next to my niece getting delirious and slap-happy from the endless recitation of names.

Next up, week spend a week watching our granddaughter, which will be fabulous and exhausting, so my nephew and I will be heading to Barcelona (Madrid and Lisboa, too) at the tail end of that to recuperate. (Leaving me to handle the last day on my own…Steven and a two year old, who will be looking after whom?)

Back in the USA

Plus a weekend in Belgium

We flew back to the US yesterday with little to no drama. Just a short delay at JFK and a bit of confusion about how to get from one terminal to the next. Delta wasn’t exactly clear about the process, but we made it. We stayed at the Sheraton at the Brussels airport and I have to say, that was great. The train from Bruges left us a few escalator rides from the hotel, which was directly across the street from the terminal.

We had most of the day to wander, so we took the train back into central Brussels, which hadn’t really impressed us the last time we were there. This time, we headed up to Parc du Cinquantenaire, about a 30-minute walk from the central train station. The park was built in 1880 for the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s freedom. When you walk toward the park, you can see three arches topped by a bronze chariot with four horses plus a beautiful view of Brussels. It houses three museums — Royal Museum of the Armed Forces & Military History, the Royal Museums of Art and History and Autoworld. Can you guess which one we visited?

Yes, you are correct — Autoworld! It’s a little pricey for what it is, but you can just wander and look at all kinds of cool cars. We think the museum buildings are repurposed train stations. Autoworld has sweeping arched ceilings, almost like a plane hangar. After the museum, we admired the landscaping and sat in the park a bit. Steven is excellent at finding restaurants that have food I can eat, so we set a course for our last Belgium beer and dinner. We sat outside at Au Brasseur, watching the people and enjoying the Belgian sun (which was in short supply during our trip). Our impression of Brussels is that its probably a very livable, international city (if you don’t mind the weather), but I wouldn’t put it at the top of my tourist wish list.

Middle Eastern or Asian food is always a good choice for me and my wonderful husband (in whose best interest it is to avoid hangry me (it is called self-preservation)) found a delicious Lebanese-Syrian place just a few minutes from Au Brasseur called East@West. Of course, the owner (at least I assume he was the owner) speaks four or five languages and they had a fabulous selection of vegan options, even kibbeh, which I have never had because it’s always meaty. This version had walnuts, which Steven said he had never had. We thoroughly enjoyed everything and then headed back to the hotel to get in one last night in the EU.

In Bruges

Of course, we ate frites, don’t even ask! Hold the mayo, though.

We had been in Bruges once before (which, you, our faithful reader already know), but we didn’t really have enough time, so we headed back. We made the mistake of not checking the train schedule careful and only found out that there was no speedy train from Amsterdam to Brussels on Saturday (or it was sold out), so it took about four hours. Oh well. Live and learn. Overall, I love the European trains!

Once again, we stayed at Hotel Academie, which is in a great location on a quiet street, but steps away from the tourist madness. The staff is lovely and helpful and the room features beautiful wallpaper with birds and flowers. Also, the bed is very comfortable! We stayed in an executive room, which offers a little more space. There’s even a closet (and it had a Murphy bed which we called Ellen after our friend in Chicago who has one in her apartment) . What’s up with all these hotels that have no place to put your clothes???

Anyway, the hotel is also two doors down from (surprise!) a beer place that is famous for a 12-glass tasting.. We thought it would be a couple of sips each, but no, they are half glasses full. I’m a light-weight, so I left most of it up to Steven (it is a tough job but someone has to do it). As is the case in most places we’ve been,the bar was playing a lovely selection of 1980s-90s American pop and I know all the words. Steven asked me the name of one of the bands, and as I said Duran Duran, so did two guys behind us. Next thing we knew, we were fast friends with Stephen and Oewen (that’s an approximation because he said his name was tough and sometimes he tells people to call him John). Anyway, they were really good guys and we had an fun learning a lot about Dutch life.

Sunday was museum day. We unenthusiastically figured we had to hit the Choco Story, or the chocolate museum. We thought it would be a tourist ripoff, but it was very informative about the history of chocolate and at the end we got all-you-can-eat chocolate (just don’t stuff your pockets and take it with you). We also hit the Torture Museum, but 100 methods of torture was a bit too depressing for us and we were glad to be done with it.

A great thing about having a bit more time and being wanderers is that we discover places we might have otherwise missed. Before leaving Bruges, we headed in the opposite direction from the hotel and ended up on a route that rings the city with a bike/walking path.

And now we are back for a bit, just in time for Mother’s Day and the famous American holiday Cinco de Mayo.

Fijne Koningsdag

We spent Monday visiting two islands off Venice. We took a vaporetto (water bus) over to Murano in the morning. Murano is famous for blown glass, which is on sale everywhere on the island and in Venice. It is very pretty and you can go see it being blown at many of the factories. However, even before the war in the Ukraine, the price of gas had skyrocketed and many had stopped production. We wandered around the island and once we were away from the crowds it was very pleasant. We took another vaporetto to another island called Burano, which is famous for its brightly colored houses. It was also very pretty, but truth be told, after 30 minutes or so of brightly colored houses, they all looked the same.

Tuesday we headed for Amsterdam. Our flight was a little late due to air traffic control issues at Schipohl, which made more sense once we found out that Wednesday was the King’s birthday and many people have the week off.

The hotels provided this

Happy King’s day! Yesterday was the Dutch King, William’s birthday. Not surprisingly it is a national holiday in the Netherlands. Sue’s friend Ellen gave us the heads up and let us know that wearing orange clothes were an absolute requirement (the Dutch monarchy is the House of Orange). Sue had some already and I quickly bought an orange T-shirt before we left Venice so that we could blend in with the natives. Our hotel gave us a short document telling us some of the rules for the day. For those of you from Chicago, imagine St. Patrick’s Day, where the entire nation is closed, but without any parades and everyone is nice. The second important part of King’s Day is that much of the city is turned into flea markets. Many of the roads are closed and everyone just puts their stuff out on the sidewalk and sells it. The Dutch lifestyle is much more use it and resell it focused than in the U.S. I suspect in part because everything is so expensive, but also it seems to be part of their very straight forward approach to life. Their logic seems to be that I am done with it, I will sell it and someone else can use it. There was everything from clothes, toys, home goods and fresh donuts on sale on the sidewalks.

Ellen and her family invited us to spend the day with them so we walked over and met Ellen about midway between our hotel and their house. We wandered through the area around their house and Ellen picked up a few things for her kids. All of us then headed to a local bar for lunch. We had beer (Heineken of course) nachos, French fries (No MAYO!) and something called bitterballen, which is deep fried gravy. After lunch we headed to their house to visit and then back to the hotel. After a brief rest, we went out again for a wander towards the center of town (which is called the Centrum). By now it was about 7 p.m. and the party was in full swing. People were partying in the streets, on the bridges and in boats on the canals. It was wild. The best part was that it was very good-natured; everyone is there for a good time and any accidental bumps, pushes, feet stepped on were easily dismissed with a wave and holding up your can of Heineken. We had a reservation for dinner at an Indian restaurant called Lumbini. The food was great and was a nice change from the pasta and pizza diet we had been on for the last couple of months. As we walked back to the hotel at about 9 p.m. the sun was just setting and the street party was beginning to thin out. From what we understand it moves inside with lots of dance parties that go on well into the night.

Thursday morning we woke up and the city was spotless. Nothing on the streets, the overflowing trash bins were gone, no detritus in the canal and everyone was back at work as if nothing had happened. We were amazed. Ellen picked us up at the hotel and took us to see the tulip fields as they are in bloom at the moment. It is an incredible sight, just rows and rows and rows of flowers each section is one color, except for the odd interloper from another row. We simply stopped by the side of a road and wandered into the fields for a while. The most interesting thing is that the farmers are not cultivating the flowers. They are cultivating the bulbs. After the flowers bloom, the farmers cut off the flowers at the base of the stem and harvest the bulbs for sale. From there we went to the Kuekenhopf Castle and wandered in their gardens and woods with Ellen’s dog Albany (and Ellen of course). After our fill of flowers and woods, Ellen dropped us back at our hotel. We each did a bit of work, grabbed lunch at a vegetarian street food place and walked in the Centrum.

Later in the afternoon we set our sights on Wynand Fockink, one of the oldest tasting rooms in Amsterdam, to sample jenever. We learned two important things from the bartender. First, that jenever (or genever) is the ancestor of modern gin. The Dutch made it for years with just a little bit of juniper in it; the British then went to replicate it and added tons more juniper. Second, that if you are asked in Amsterdam if you have ever tried anything before say no, and the bartender will give you a sample. We tried the various types of jenever, and some of the other types of spirits that they make. For dinner, we tried to get into an Indonesian restaurant, which are very popular in the Netherlands, that one of the bartenders suggested, but they were fully booked, so we settled on a reasonably good Mexican place near our hotel. We have learned that you should always make a reservation in Amsterdam.

Destination Anywhere

Oh, the best laid plans. We had everything in place; flights, hotels, AirBnBs, tours, SIM cards – yes everything. Then Sue tested positive for COVID. Ugh! (If I actually had Covid, it was asymptomatic. I feel fine.) Time to pivot. We couldn’t stay in the place in Rome, so we did what we do best. We gathered our thoughts and made a new plan.

Part one. Sue took another test and came up negative, but Israel was still out because she would need to get the PCR test from the lab that was already closed, so that was off the table. First, we had to find a place for the next day or two so we had time make real plans. We looked for hotels in Rome, but quickly decided that Venice was a more interesting choice as Sue had not been there.

We checked the trains and found a train leaving in a few hours. We picked a hotel and made a reservation for the weekend. Whew, the immediate issue was settled. We had a quick lunch, headed for our favorite train station – Rome Termini – and boarded the train to Venice.

The train gave us time to think, plan and organize ourselves. We decided to go to Amsterdam, another city Sue has not been to, and visit Sue’s friend Ellen; then head to London to see my daughter Abi. I contacted Abi but on hearing that we wanted to visit – she immediately left London – OK, not quite, she has a business trip starting on Monday and would not be back until we were going to be back in the states. So, no London. After a very brief discussion, we decided to go back to Brugge, which we loved, but only had a day there way back in September.

The next issue we found was that the flights to Amsterdam were very expensive on Monday, but reasonably priced on Tuesday. Once again, after a brief discussion, we decided to stay in Venice an extra day. Note to self, we would need to change the hotel reservation in Venice, but we could do that once we arrived. Sue then started the process of talking to Delta to change our return flights (which were Tel Aviv to JFK and then JFK to Fort Lauderdale) to be a couple of days earlier.

The first thing we found was that flying from Amsterdam was €2,600 while flying from Brussels was €1,200. With Abi unavailable, and our revised plan to go to Brugge, Brussels seemed like an easy choice. The first person quoted the new flight as an additional $800 per person, which seemed excessive as we had paid an additional $500 per person to change our original flight from Rome to JFK to be from Tel Aviv to JFK. So even without any credit from the original flight we would still be paying more for the flight than had we just bought it.

I then started a conversation with Delta, too, and my person quoted a price of $300 per person to change the ticket. Sue checked the Delta website using the modify ticket function and it was giving us was giving us a refund of $500 per person, but for the wrong class of ticket. Sue then asked a Delta pricing specialist why the website was showing a $500 refund and customer service was quoting a $800 increase. The representative came back with a $300 credit on the ticket per person on the international flight using the right fare class and then also gave us a $250 per person credit for changing the date of our JFK to FLL flight. All in, we received credits of $1,100 instead of paying an additional $1,600. There just does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to this pricing system. (Note to Delta: Train your customer service people!) We quickly booked the tickets for both US flights and the flight from Venice to Amsterdam. We then booked the hotel in Amsterdam and the hotel in Brugge. During our four-hour train ride to Venice, we managed to plan the entire two weeks and make all the arrangements.

You know the old saying. When life gives you lemons, make lemoncello.

So here we are, in Venice – the consolation prize. We purposefully selected a hotel that was not too far from the train station, but when we arrived it looked like it was going to be a long walk. Outside the train station there are porters who will take you bags to your hotel on a rolling cart and boy am I glad we did that. The walk to the hotel included two bridges, one of which had 42 steps and was about half a mile – if we didn’t get lost, and we would have gotten lost. Our porter, Mahbubur, is from Bangladesh has a degree in political science and speaks “only six languages”. He works in Italy to send money to his family and has two girls in college, studying nursing and dentistry. I felt somewhat ashamed that this man, who has a better education than I have, was carrying my bags for a living. It is often jarring to be reminded how lucky we really are.

We checked into the hotel and headed out for dinner. We found a place just around 7 corners, 3 bridges and a couple of covered walkways. I left a trail of breadcrumbs so that we could find our way back, but the pigeons ate them, so we will never be able to find that restaurant again. We waited about 30 minutes but sat down on the early side of dinner at about 8:30. The food was good, and we sat and enjoyed ourselves finishing just around 11 p.m. You know – early for Italy.

Today, Sunday, we headed out for a full day of wandering, ostensibly our goal was to get to St. Mark’s Square, but after taking several random turns and studiously avoiding the directions that Google was giving us, we found that we could not actually get from where we were to St. Marks without either crossing at the Rialto Bridge or taking a water bus. Sue had wisely put a patch on Saturday night and so we decided to brave the water bus. We found the station easily (only three wrong turns and two additional bridges) and bought a full day pass for the water bus. The boat showed up, we boarded and went exactly one stop almost literally across the canal and got off. I know it is only April, but there are so many tourists in Venice already, I can’t imagine what it will be like this summer.

After St. Marks we hopped back on the water bus (after a couple of false starts trying to find the right bus and the right direction) and headed to the Jewish Ghetto. Stacy and David (our sister in law and Sue’s brother) had gone to a shop there and we wanted to have a look. After doing a little bit of shopping we decided it was time for lunch.

I don’t mean to sound snobbish or ungrateful for the adventure we are having, but we have been here about two months and are just a little tired of Italian food.  In Rome went to an Asian place, where Sue had sushi and I did not; a Mexican street food place near our AirBnB and found a Persian place on our last full day in the city, all were a very nice change from pasta and pizza.  Today for lunch we found a place that did Middle Eastern (Lebanese, Iranian and Afgani food). They served a selection of five things per person. Afterwards, we wandered around for a while longer, crossed the Rialto Bridge and rounded out the day with dinner at a traditional Italian place, just down the street from our hotel.

Hellos and Goodbyes

As we approach the end of our wonderful stay in Roma, we are faced with more goodbyes. Today, we said arrivederci (or ciao) to our trainer, Angelo, (from Rabbit Sport Center) who not only tortured us with full-body exercises for our aging carcasses, but invited us out for coffee with his partner, Meg. Not only is Angelo a very buff trainer, but he’s an excellent photographer. Meg works for the United Nations, so they are a real power couple, and sweet as well. Meg grew up in Toronto, so we were able to have a more comfortable conversation. Understandably, Angelo was shy about conversational English, but he did great (with some translating of more difficult topics like the differences in health care).

Didn’t have any pics of our new friends, so here’s one of a cat who was my friend while I petted it.
We have no idea who this is, but he accidentally AirDropped his photos to me, so I will call him The Unknown Friend.

Meeting new people, making a connection, learning about their culture and their lives makes life sweeter, but arrivedercis sting. We always say, “We’ll see you again, somewhere, sometime,” and we always mean it. Of course, we are moving targets and so are many of the people we meet. We’re attracted to open people with adventurous spirits, so they are just as likely to pick up and move as we are. It makes having a giant party a bit of a challenge.

Someday, when we settle down, we will issue a permanent invitation to all our far-flung friends and we will truly mean that they are welcome to stay with us. We now have friends in Mexico (in addition to our favs, Kenta and Doug), Brazil, Paris, Burgundy, Rome, Nice, The Netherlands and Jerusalem. Feel free to add to our list.

Although leaving here is melancholy, we will be reuniting with a friend we met in Paris, who lives in Israel. Not only will we meet him, but he is moving out of his place to let us stay there and his mom is meeting us there because he will be at work. Thank you, Gilad and family!

Speaking of Israel … We’ve been assured by all our Israeli connections that we will be perfectly safe despite the reports of increased tension. Passover and Ramadan (and Easter) apparently remind everyone that sharing a tiny piece of land is impossible for all who have the power (but not the will) to change things. Sigh.

We are leaving our AirBnB in Rome on Saturday and flying to Israel on Sunday. One of the foibles of our life (and increasingly feeble minds) is that we make logistical errors. We thought we booked the place until April 25, but Noooooooooooo, April 23. So, we’ll be staying at the airport, which works out since we have a somewhat early flight and are flying El Al, so we want to make sure we get there in plenty of time to get through security. But, keeping all the details straight can be difficult, even with Steven’s excellent spreadsheets.