Monday, June 29, 2009

I could live in Barcelona.

After two weeks of sun and fun in Andalusia, we flew an hour north for a few days in Barcelona en route home.

I was a little leery about our rental apartment. Sure, it looked gorgeous in the photos and the rental agency was extremely professional during the transaction. But the frightful Paris apartment we rented two summers ago also looked charming. And it was filthy. This apartment did not disappoint. I highly recommend Friendly Rentals Barcelona.

It was on Plaza Cataluna, across the square from Las Ramblas, Barcelona's famed street of shops and street performers. It was clean and modern and very quiet. And there was a doorman. City living at its best. The master bath had a bidet, which Thing 2 required a demonstration of. The six of us (my MIL had joined us by then) were very comfortable there and even bought a few food items at El Corte Ingles, the department store with the amazing food market on the lower level, which was across the street. After the mosquitoes and geckos we shared Rancho del Ingles with, this was pretty much heaven.

I didn't realize how mediocre the food was in Andalusia until we started eating in Barcelona! Our first meal was with my parents, who were heading back to the states the next day. I don't remember what my entree was but I do remember the first course: a whole avocado, split in two, with chunky vinaigrette filling up the middle. I can't believe I ate the whole thing. Other meals included fried artichokes (we had these at three different restaurants, my MIL and I could live on them), leafy salads with goat cheese or brie, tomato and mozzarella salads, well-seasoned meats, and grilled, seasonal mushrooms.

It was about this time that Michael Jackson died so there was an ongoing vigil in Plaza Cataluna. The Pinks found this interesting. This year, for the first time, Barcelona had its own Pride celebration and the parade was the second day we were there.

It was surprising how many people were in Barcelona. Yes, it's a city of almost 2 million residents and it was tourist season, too, but the quantity of people on the streets at any time of day or night was astounding. It reminded me of New York without the edge.

Friday, June 26, 2009

English Lessons

We also day tripped to Gibraltar this week. Gibraltar is a self-governing British territory at the southern end of Spain and at the entrance to the Mediterranean. It's 2.4 square miles. England and Spain have battled over the land too many times for me to recount here for you.

It's a funny place to get to. We drove 90 minutes south then parked in Spain and walked across the border. We could have driven but the line was very long. There were buses on the English side so we hopped one into town. The strangest part of the ride was crossing the airport runway. Gibraltar is a small place and they had to work an airport in there somewhere.

We walked through the small town, which had four synagogues, most surprisingly, and ate greasy fish and chips. Then we went to see The Rock of Gibraltar up close. There's a short tram ride to the top and there we had the most amazing view of the sea, Spain and Gibraltar itself. The rock is limestone and has many tunnels in it, which are controlled by the military. It's also home to a nature reserve and 200+ apes that adore potato chips. There are signs galore requesting that you not feed the friendly apes and reminding you of the 500 pound penalty for doing so. But those apes are smart little beasts and manage to nab any people food that remains briefly unattended. The Pinks had fun watching the apes. We all did, actually.

My mother-in-law arrived last night (after a 12-hour delay in Madrid and lost luggage, ugh) and will come with us to Barcelona tomorrow. Although we've covered so much ground during our stay, the time has evaporated. I looked into our refrigerator a few days ago and saw that one whole shelf was taken up by beer and an entire freezer drawer was filled with ice cream. I will offer it and much more to the housekeeper.

Today we went back into the city of Malaga and had the best meal of the trip thus far. The food at Gorki was modern Spanish. I had a spinach salad with goat cheese, sun dried tomatoes and bacon, and mushrooms with garlic and bacon so divine that I wish I'd eaten less of the salad and left more room for the mushrooms. Our friends were equally happy with their choices of kabobs and ham and cheese sandwiches. Neeracha -- you would have loved this meal. We followed lunch with helados (ice cream) from Casa Mira, where the cones are as good as the ice cream.

Tonight Belgian expat Chef Ric came in to prepare us dinner. He made two kinds of salad, chicken for the kids, a baked fruit dessert and paella. I'm glad we did this on our last night because it gave us something big to look forward to. Lesson learned: do this earlier in the trip so we don't have to throw out the leftovers.

While I don't want our trip to end, The Pinks have developed an infatuation with Pringles potato chips, which borders on obsession. I look forward to returning them to a calcium- and vegetable-filled diet when we get home!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Africa Hot

aka A Tale of Two Cities.

I was really excited for our day in Seville. It's a long drive from here -- 2.5 hours each way -- but I love cities, we love cities. As it turns out, I didn't so much love it. Seville has a few things going for it: it has the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and it also contains what I thought to be the highlight of our day: Christopher Columbus' grave. The cathedral is absolutely stunning as you can see from the outside, pictured at right. We also saw the 100-meter-tall tower of Giralda, which is a minaret built by the Almohads from 1172 to 1195, just 50 years before the Christian conquest.

Two days later we did the last checkoff of our trip: Morocco. We got up at the obscenely early hour of 7:45a, caffeinated and drove two hours south to Tarifa. There we caught the hydrofoil to Tangier, a 45 minute ride with a one hour time change. The boat was much nicer than we'd envisioned, with plush seating and food and drink, and the kids even played hide and seek on board.

The whole customs process was quite involved, however, and when we finally returned to Spain that night we had four new stamps in our passports and had filled out quite a few forms.

All the guidebooks say to watch for pick pockets and to avoid being taken. They make Tangier seem like a pretty scary place. We didn't find that to be the case although we did keep the kids very close to us at all times as the old city was a maze of 600+ narrow cobblestone streets.

In the end we did end up with a guide, one who had lived in Los Angeles for 8 years, and who was both interesting and funny. We really lucked into him as we were seriously fooling ourselves to think we could see everything in just a day trying to navigate those streets. Our guide took us to a spice shop (at Sara's request as she was in search of saffron), and also to a shop which had very nice Western-style bathrooms and rugs displayed on its rooftop (see picture at right). Mostly we saw the sights and admired the architecture. Oh yes -- we also saw a snake charmer, which the four Littles were fascinated by and which the two Bigs stood many meters away from, horrific looks on their faces.

Tangier is on the northernmost tip of Africa and has 2.5 million people in the greater metropolis. It is nine miles south of Spain and the Mediterranean there is the most surreal shade of turquoise.

Two languages are spoken there: Arabic and French. It was a relief to be in a country where I could speak and understand the language again, albeit briefly!

We did get hounded by the hawkers some but our guide kept them mostly at bay and The Pinks just bought a few trinkety things: bracelets, coin purses. I tried to shoot some pictures of Berber and Moroccan women but many believe that photos steal their souls so I gave up after a while, respecting them. Thom did get the one shot, above.

I really enjoyed our brief foray into Morocco, and North Africa, although I don't think I'll be returning anytime soon. And now we've been to a new continent!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Beaches

On Father's Day we headed to Nerja, one of the beach towns east of Malaga. The three families with us the first week had departed and now we were accompanied by our friends from Austin, the Singers, and our friends from Boston, the Kupers. We have six daughters amongst us: four 7-year-olds and an 11-year-old and a 12-year-old.

En route to Nerja we drove through another beach town, Torre del Mar, and deemed it exactly what we were looking for: the quintessential Spanish beach experience. We had a late lunch amongst the locals and were the only English-speakers on the beach. For a handful of Euros you can rent umbrella-covered lounges and be close enough to the water to see the kids play. It was a great day.

Two days later we opted for another beach day, this time in the seaside resort area of Marbella. This is the spot on the Costa del Sol. It was a weekday so there were just enough people around to make it interesting yet not crowded.

Marbella is Newport Beach. Big yachts. Streets lined with Valentino and Jimmy Choo boutiques. Underground parking. Well dressed people. Well undressed people soaking up the sun. There was just one thing we had to explain to the kids: why a nearby 4ish-year-old with long enough hair to be in a purple-scrunchied pony tail sported male anatomy. The umbrella-covered lounges were more posh there but again the kids had a blast just playing in the surf and collecting shells, rocks and sea glass.

Both days we got home around 9p, let the kids swim a bit more, then fired up the grill for simple, late dinners.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tales of the Alhambra

This is how every day goes:

Wake up.
Wake kids up.
Leave house 30 minutes later than the time agreed upon the night before.
Drive to day's destination.
Eat late lunch.
See the local monument / church / castle.
Eat ice cream.
Drive back to house.
Eat dinner.

The Alhambra, in Granada, was the historic highlight of the trip. The Alhambra contains the former palaces of the Nasrid kings, roughly 700 years ago. Granada sits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range and we were surprised to see snow on the mountains since it has been in the 90s since we arrived. The city of Granada and The Alhambra have the best examples of Moorish architecture in Spain.

Of course we ate lunch there and also had ice cream. And then we stopped at the BP station on the way home because we were out of bread and they bake it fresh there. Yes, really. Also noteworthy is that pedestrians have plenty of time to cross the street here. The flashing crosswalk signs that alert pedestrians that it's their time to cross the street go for a full 90 seconds. How great is that?!

The three families who joined us this week are leaving with their laptops in the morning. I may very well be done blogging from Spain!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Museo Picasso Malaga.

This was the highlight of our day in Malaga. Yes, the view of the city from the 14th century Gibralfaro castle was impressive. The remains of the castle itself was impressive.

But the museum really struck us all. It itself was gorgeous in its white marble with black accents minimalism. The kids just loved the art and had learned about it in school. My favorite is the Bather, painted in 1971. Picasso was born in Malaga although he is better known for his years in France (and many lovers). Picasso was an atypical artist. He died famous and wealthy while most artists die young, poor and misunderstood. His daughter-in-law and grandson donated 155 pieces to this museum and we took our time browsing the collection.

After our day at the castle (afternoon and early evening, really, as we can't seem to get out of the house before noon) we BBQd and the kids swam until pretty close to midnight.

Interestingly, we were caught in some traffic en route to Malaga. Police sped by us on the A7 and we thought it was a joke. The first police car looked just like it carried four twenty-something dudes on the way to the beach who slapped a siren on the top of their car. We thought it a hoax to pass up the congestion. Nope. Three more police cars passed, two of them looking more official.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Day 2 - A whole lotta nothing

Day 2 really should have been Day 1. But we were antsy to see something. Today we napped, swam and Dave made three trips to the churro place, which apparently never opened. The kids did without today. We also grocery shopped. I just love grocery shopping in other countries. At right is my best buy so far -- plastic bags that make ice cubes! Is this the greatest idea ever?! It's also odd because Spaniards are not into ice. I will bring a few boxes of these home.

Back to the Ranch. Yes, it's rustic. It's quirky. Depending on my mood I think it's either quaint or borders on that junkyard look. There's a house a few miles from us in the 'burbs that has this look going for it and it's an eyesore with all this weird 1800s rusted farm equipment out front.

There are a few decorative fountains on the property and also statues. This is one. I saved you the view from the other side. Trust me, it's all there. Of course the kids discovered it before we did and had some questions. There is a wedding here the day we depart so Franta, the gardener, has been hard at work on the grounds. I wonder if we're the first renters of the season.

One of the bathrooms has a nautical feel. At least that's what I think it is. It's clearly intentional as it has one of those rain-style shower heads in it.

As I type this it's Day 4 (I'll backtrack on the highlights when I have more time to blog) and we've discovered some other interesting things. Surprisingly, we've gotten with the program and now wake up at 11a, eat lunch at 3p, and have dinner around 10p. We try to get the kids into bed by midnight. And us? Well ... whenever we get there.

The underground parking garages here have a neat feature: each stall has a light above it, which alternates between green and red depending on whether a car occupies it. This is great when you're on one side of the garage trying to figure out if there's an open spot nearby.

People here smoke, which the kids find strange enough to comment on. We also cover them and ourselves in sunscreen yet the Spaniards are very tan. This is the last week of school here and school begins at 8:15a. We find this surprising since we often see school-aged children at dinner at 11p.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Day 1 - Ronda, a pueblo blanco

After a deep, deep night's sleep all four families piled into their cars and headed for Ronda, one of the local white villages. The drive was scenic and wound through the arid countryside. We spent part of the ride convincing The Pinks not to get sick.

Spaniards keep very different hours than Americans. Lunch is 2ish. Dinner is 10ish. Everything is closed from 2-5p while people each lunch and nap. We arrived in Ronda in time for lunch and did so at the restaurant next to Ronda's big tourist attraction, the New Bridge, built in 1793. If you look closely at the right side of this picture you can see the restaurant cut into the cliff. There was a touristy open-air market so we browsed a bit and The Pinks bought some jewelry.

The drive back took us along the famed Costa del Sol with miles of beaches, overbuilt highrise condos and thriving nightlife. The kids took a late swim while a subset of us made dinner. Or rather assembled it from spit roasted chickens we picked up along the way supplemented with green salad, baguette and local cheese, and pasta.

A typical breakfast here is churros and hot chocolate. Dave has been going out each morning to get the churros, which are not sugar and cinnamon covered as stateside.

My Spanish is limited to the most basic words and I'm finding the language a challenge. My instinct is to respond in Italian or French, both of which I'm far from fluent in but can get by in in a pinch. Fortunately the locals are very nice and patient as I explain myself through a combination of pantomime and butchery of their language.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

We have arrived. Finally.

Our journey began at the obscene hour of 3:45a on Friday, when we left for the airport. Upon arrival at SFO, the Delta agent informed us that our flight was cancelled due to a mechanical problem. While this was unfortunate, Delta redeemed itself by putting us on the next flight, all in first class, in time to make our original connection. The Pinks were in heaven. I told them not to get used to it. They watched Nick; I watched The Reader. (Amazing, movie.)

Our New York to Malaga flight had a mechanical issue, too. We boarded, sat on the tarmac two hours and unboarded. Eventually another aircraft was found and after a new crew showed up, we finally left New York. Here's the funny thing: you know how you wouldn't think of talking to random people on planes while you travel for business? It's a whole different ballgame when you're on vacation and have six hours to kill while the airline tries to figure out what to do with you. The Pinks actually had a good time while the adults fretted ... well, until the last hour when they were so exhausted they were beside themselves. It didn't much matter that we were in coach as all of us slept from the moment we fastened our seatbelts until we landed in Malaga.

So we arrived at dinner Saturday instead of at lunch. Hil, Neeracha and their families had already settled in, fortunately. We had a second wind by then and pulled it together for a casual tapas dinner in town, which was very good. My parents arrived at dinnertime as well but did not join us as they'd had a long day of travel from Madrid.

Rancho del Ingles is beautiful and also more rustic than we'd envisioned. There's quite a bit of land surrounding the houses so the kids freely wander the property chasing lizards and picking lemons and plums. There are avocados here somewhere although we haven't found them yet.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

My vacation has started ... without me!

I'm jealous. I'm turning Elphaba green right here at my desk. I planned a great summer vacation. And it's taking place right now while I am still home.

Neeracha and my parents left last weekend. Neeracha is already blogging about it, much to my simultaneous happiness and irritation.

Three more days of work and school ... and then we're outta here!

(We have a house sitter and a gate and an alarm, all you opportunistic burglars.)