Monthly Archives: April 2010

Out from under

We’ve finally escaped the clutches of the Great European Ash Cloud of 2010 and just touched down at Washington Dulles. Some seats opened up on a flight out of Madrid today, so we left Sevilla yesterday and headed there rather than flying out of Lisbon tomorrow. We should be home later tonight at last!

Aínsa

After San Sebastián we had a break from the big cities with a roadtrip through the Pyrenees. Our first day we headed from from San Sebastián‎ to Aínsa. Aínsa is a small town in the center of the Spanish Pyrenees which has an old quarter that dates back about 1000 years. It was incredibly charming, cute, and quiet, plus served as a great base for exploration of the Pyrenees.  We stayed in a little hotel built into the walls of the old city which was restored a few years ago in a style we loved, perfectly blending clean contemporary glass, steel and wood within its centuries-old stone structure. We spent a day driving around the sights of the local Pyrenees, including to the beautiful Spanish Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, up to the French border at the Col du Pourtalet (one of the classic mountain passes of the Tour de France), and back to Aínsa through a far more narrow, windy, and adventurous road than we had planned.  After two lovely nights in Aínsa, we drove from Aínsa to Barcelona thru the little country of Andorra.

Click on the picture of the view through our bedroom window in Aínsa for a slideshow including the old city, throwing snowballs atop the Col du Pourtalet, driving through the Pyrenees including on some small roads shared with lots of cows, our GPS as we crossed the prime meridian, and a detail I particularly liked at our hotel.

The Pyrenees from our hotel room in Ainsa

San Sebastián‎

After Madrid, we headed north for three days in San Sebastián‎, a resort town on the Atlantic coast of Spain just across the border from Biarritz.  We rented a nice apartment in the center of town, near the beach and just 10 minutes walk to the old city. This is the region of the Basque people, whose language is quite different from Spanish and whose food is magnificent especially pintxos, a version of tapas that is just 2-3 bites each serving. Our highlight restaurant was Zeruko, which had the most amazing pintxos with many layers of texture (e.g. a crunchy potato-chip like cup holding savory spiced meat with a creamy soft-fried quail egg on top). We also had a fun evening with the girls at a place called Sidreria Calonge up on a ridge overlooking the Atlantic with a local social buzz, a room full of massive casks of mildly alcoholic apple cider, and humongous tasty steaks served saignant.

Click on the picture of Claire on the merry-go-round for a slideshow including the beach, the girls enjoying a children’s park right in front of the town hall, and a beautiful and surreal amusement park perched atop Monte Igueldo in the city.

Claire on the merry-go-round in San Sebastián

Limonada

Quick update on our travels in Europe. Our original flights home through Frankfurt yesterday were cancelled thanks to the ash cloud and we were rebooked back to the U.S. on the soonest available flights — next Sunday! After thinking hard about heading to Paris for our bonus week of vacation, we decided against going deeper under the ash cloud so instead are heading as far south and west as we can in Europe, to Portugal, which hasn’t yet been affected by the ash cloud and seems to offer the best hope of getting home despite ongoing volcanic activity. Yesterday we made the long drive south from Barcelona to Granada, and today we visited the Alhambra. We’ll go to Sevilla tomorrow, for the annual Feria de Abril, and then on to Lisbon. We feel a bit like Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszlo from Casablanca, who wanted to get out from under the Nazi cloud in Europe and took a slightly more southern route to Lisbon thru Rick’s Cafe.

Grandma Judy, who has been traveling with us, was on a non-stop flight to the U.S. from Spain. The Barcelona airport opened up Sunday so she was able to get home yesterday.

Now that we’re done sorting out our travel plans, we’ll try to get caught up with pictures and other stories from our trip.

Volcanic hazards

The eruption of the delightfully named Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland has made our European holiday a bit more interesting than expected. With most European flights canceled, I ended up participating in my Wikipedia board meeting today over Skype from Barcelona. Many, many people are stranded on the wrong continent, plus every rental car, taxi, ferry and train in Europe seems to be fully booked. And there is no particular end in sight. Some Americans are even taking buses to Southampton to book passage on the Queen Mary 2 to New York. The airports just north of us closed a few hours ago; we’re just waiting for the ash cloud to move south. It feels like a lighter, happier version of Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic classic On the Beach.

The good news is that our core family is together, we’re on vacation with all the gear we need, and Grandma Judy is even here. Barring any last minute stiff breezes blowing the ash east of Frankfurt (where our original flight home connects), we’ll be making limonada out of lemons and extending our stay from a few days to a few weeks depending on the pace of the eruption, the weather patterns, and flight rebooking options. We’re not sure what we’ll do yet, but we’re thinking about France or Portugal. Have a suggestion for us? Add a comment!

Madrid, Segovia, Toledo

We’re now in a little town in the Spanish Pyrenees called Aínsa, enjoying a short break from big city excitement. The rest of our time in Madrid was fantastic.  Here’s a quick snapshot of an average day:

  • Languish in our hotel until around noon, breakfasting on fresh fruit and lattes/pastry from the coffee shop downstairs.
  • Head out for some sightseeing, usually a long walk or a trip on what Claire called the “big red bus,” an open air tourist bus that loops through the city.
  • Lunch at a cafe on one of Madrid’s many plazas, featuring ice cold cerveza while Juliet giggled at her sister running around.
  • Return to the hotel for naps around 4pm.
  • Head out around 8pm for another walk then tapas for dinner.
  • Back to the hotel — and bed, finally — by midnight.

Judy joined us for our last day in Madrid and was kind enough — despite her jetlag — to let Katherine and me go out for dinner and a Flamenco show.

We also visited two nearby cities.  The first adventure was a day in Toledo, the beautiful 3000+ year-old city that was a former capital of the Spanish empire and a place where Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities thrived together for a thousand years until the Spanish Inquisition.  The second was a stop at Segovia, notable for its beauty, its well-preserved Roman Aqueduct, and for a castle that helped inspire Disney’s Cinderella Castle.

Click on the picture of Claire and girls in a rowboat on a lake in Madrid’s Parque Buen Retiro for a slideshow, which also includes a shot of our everpresent double-stroller and visiting playgrounds/parks in Madrid’s Plaza de Oriente, Toledo, and Segovia.

Katherine and the girls boating in Madrid

Easter in Madrid

We’ve just started a family vacation to Spain, celebrating Easter in Madrid.  Our trip has gotten off to a fine start, with long but undramatic flights and a free humongous room at a fancy hotel (thanks to points from all my business travel) with a view out the window of the beautiful Fountain of Neptune.  The weather today was warm and sunny and we walked all afternoon, joining lots of families at Madrid’s 500 year-old Sunday market, El Rastro, and enjoying lunch on the Plaza Mayor.  Three fun notes:

  • We have so much stuff for the girls that we needed to take two taxis last night from the airport to our hotel (embarrassing!)
  • After lunch on Plaza Mayor, Juliet for the first time walked a full ten steps from Katherine to me
  • We got a pleasant surprise at dinner out tonight:  a “half bottle” of wine, at least in this restaurant, is a half liter of wine so is what we would consider two-thirds of a bottle!

Click on picture below for a few slides from today, plus bonus pictures including an Easter Egg hunt, egg decorating (and eating), Juliet discovering the joys of toilet paper, and taking our new family wagon to a neighborhood birthday party.

Juliet's first steps in Madrid's Plaza Mayor