When the Weather Doesn’t Cooperate

Our third and final beach day in Santander, the temperature dropped by at least 20 degrees. It was dismal and rainy, and much too cold to spend at the beach. We were all disappointed to miss out on a day playing in the surf and sand. We decided to take a taxi out to see one of the lighthouses.


We asked our taxi drivers to drop us off, but it was so cold and rainy they insisted on waiting for us. They told us to go take a few pictures, and then they would take us somewhere else. The taxi drivers in Spain that we encountered are the nicest collective group of taxi drivers that I have ever encountered. They were friendly and helpful, which was a huge bonus when traveling around with so many little ones. I wish I spoke more Spanish. It would have been pleasant to speak with them a little more.

We got out of the taxi and took some pictures of the lighthouse and the coastline.


The northern provinces of Spain are green and rainy. We met an Irish couple in the previous town who told us it looks just like Ireland. Celtic culture is a part of the history of northern Spain as well. We saw Celtic symbols in some of the old churches we saw. The people also play bagpipes.


Even though I was cold, I was so glad we had a chance to see this cliffs overlooking the ocean. I love the ocean in stormy weather!


After we were finished enjoying the view and taking some pictures, our taxi drivers kindly suggested that we go to El Corte Ingles. El Corte Ingles is a large department store in Spain, similar to Macy’s, but also like a mini mall. It was a great place to spend a rainy day. The children had a great time checking out the toys, and playing in the play area. We ate at Burger King, which had Lalaloopsy Toys as part of the kids meals. My girls learned to love Lalaloopsy on this trip. It’s a children’s show that has dolls with button eyes as the main characters. I found the Lalaloopsy characters to be somewhat creepy, and my kids thought that was hilarious. There was a grocery store where we picked up some needed snack items and toiletries. My husband was even able to go to the doctor while there. He had developed strep throat on our trip. Thank you, taxi drivers, for the excellent rainy day recommendation!


We were sad that our last beach day was rained out, but it was nice to have a low key day to rest and recharge before heading to Bilbao the next day.

How do you handle wrinkles in your travel plans? What’s the best impromptu experience you’ve had with your family traveling?

Santander, A Coastal City

For those of you who have read my blog before, I must admit that this past year I have not been writing about our travels. We’ve been on several family trips, so it isn’t a lack of traveling that has kept me from writing. In returning to this blog, I thought about skipping the rest of our trip to Spain and starting with a more recent family trip. But in looking back through our pictures of Spain, I remembered just how wonderful a time we had there. So here I am, picking up where I left off.

When we decided to go to Spain, we knew we wanted to spend some time at the beach. The glorious, glorious beach!

Santander is located around the center of the northern coast of Spain. A long ferry travels to Santander from England, so you hear a mixture of British English and Spanish everywhere around town. We were there in May, so it wasn’t quite peak beach season. The weather, on average, was warm enough to spend a day at the beach as long as you didn’t spend too much time in the water. Playa del Sardinero is the largest and most popular beach in Santander. That is where we spent our beach time. The sand was soft and golden. The waves were large enough that you felt you were swimming in the ocean, but small enough that I felt safe enough to let my children play without being an arm distance away. Not like the California riptides where I feel that I have to hold onto each child at all times to keep them from being swept out to.

The curve of the beach is bordered on both sides by a rocky outcrop. When the tide goes out, there are tide pools to search for aquatic treasures. We stayed at Gran Hotel Sardinero, which is just across the street from the beach, a gorgeous white hotel with an architectural style similar to the casino, which it is adjacent to.


Our hotel room wasn’t quite ready when we reached Santander. We arrived in midmorning. Our children couldn’t wait to get to the beach, so we left our luggage at the hotel, ran across the street and splashed right in.


The central white building in this picture is the casino. The white building on the right is our hotel. In addition to playing at the beach, we took a boat tour around the harbor. There are two lighthouses in Santander, one towards each end of Playa del Sardinero. We got a good view of both on the tour, plus a view of the former royal palace.


We didn’t do much else in Santander besides playing at the beach. It was a welcome respite for our children from the medieval cities and museums we took them to. Sometimes, you just need a day (or two or three) at the beach.


The Altamira Caves Museum

I was taking an anthropology class in high school when I first heard of the Altamira Caves. In that class, I learned about many of the wonders of ancient peoples that exist in our world; the Nazca lines, Chichen-Itza, the cave dwellings at Mesa Verde, the most ancient of cave paintings ever discovered. “I must see them someday!” I was saddened to learn a few years later that the caves of Altamira and Lascaux were closed to visitors. It was a protective measure, but saddened me greatly. Knowing I couldn’t go inside and see the paintings in person, the Altamira caves fell off of my travel list.

Then, when we were planning our trip to Spain, my husband insisted that we would love Santillana del Mar and we must stay there for a few days. Well, he was right! We did love Santillana del Mar. I’m so glad that we didn’t miss that charming little village. While I was reading through our guidebook to see what sites there are in Santillana, I came across a reference to the Altamira Cave Museum. I hadn’t realized our travel plans would take us so close to the Altamira Caves! The exact location of the caves is kept secret to preserve them, but in the museum they have created an exact replica with every bump, crack, and image from the original cave site. I was so excited! A replica is a little less exciting. But truthfully, with small children in tow who would probably be scared of going deep into some dark caves, an exact replica is probably a better idea anyway.

To get to Museo de Altamira, you must walk roughly a mile and a half through the Cantabrian countryside. It is mostly uphill from Santillana del Mar. My husband was my hero. He pushed our double stroller the whole way there. Our children started complaining as we began our hike. But it was so beautiful that they soon forgot to complain. This picture does not adequately convey the feeling of standing in the warm sun with a cool breeze from the Atlantic carrying a briny smell.


Walking through the Cantabrian countryside was like moving through a bucolic dream. Red roofed houses and churches dotted the green landscape.


Cows and horses munched sweet grass in their pastures as we passed along our way, while white, puffy clouds floated in a blue sky.


At one point we had to walk down this rocky path with daisies and other wildflowers growing in abundance.


My husband ran on ahead to make sure we were still heading the right direction, so I took the time to make some daisy chains for my little girls. Those who drive to the museum in a big tour bus really miss out on a beautiful experience.


And finally we reached the museum! There are two portions of the museum, the cave replicas and the more traditional museum about the caves and their history. When you pay the entrance fee you are given time stamped cards for entrance to the cave replica. We were lucky that it was not very busy on the day we went. We were the only ones in the caves at our time.

As you enter the cave replica, there is a video showing what the people who lived there might have looked like, cooking and performing other tasks at the entrance to their cave. Then, it simulates an earthquake and cave-in, showing the entrance to the cave being closed off by falling debris. This scared my five year old, who continued to ask if there would be an earthquake the remainder of our visit to the museum.

Next, you move down some metal ramps into the area where the cave paintings are replicated. They were beautiful! The natural outcroppings, bumps and bulges of the cave were an integral part of the pictures themselves. The images are really three dimensional, and could be considered sculpture using the curves of the rock instead of merely paintings. There were a variety of pigments and techniques used to create the paintings. Handprints in black and red dot the ceiling. Negative space handprints were created with red pigment being blown around the hand in a sort of airbrush technique. Remembering that this is what the actual paintings looked like, it was an incredible experience.

The museum was very informative, and had many interactive displays that my children enjoyed. There was very little English used in the museum, so brush up on your Spanish or have a Spanish speaking companion with you if you really want to learn about the history of the caves.

There are some caves with ancient paintings in the area that you can still visit. With young children, we decided to forego those on this trip. Maybe next time. But still, if you are anywhere near Santillana del Mar, take a hike through the magical countryside and visit Museo de Altamira.


Santillana del Mar: a Spanish Brigadoon

Every once in a while in my travels, I come upon a place that seems arrested in time. If I look closely, I might find anachronistic details that verify I am still living in the 21st century. If I allow myself to be fully immersed in the charming beauty of a place, my mind filters out those pesky modern details, and I can imagine that I have stepped into the past. Or that a gem of a village has been hidden for centuries, and only the luckiest of travelers arrive in the right place in the right time to enjoy its beauty. Santillana del Mar is one of those cherished places.


Hidden on the north coast of Spain, about a 20 minute bus ride from the ocean, Santillana del Mar has the combined charm of a small Spanish medieval village with the green landscape of an Irish coastline. One can easily imagine fairies and leprechauns hiding in the fields around the town, with an occasional curious creature exploring the village itself. Every picture you take, every corner you turn in Santillana yields beautiful and breathtaking sites. It is also an extremely restful and peaceful place. It is the kind of place where sitting and lingering over a two hour lunch, and blissfully strolling down the medieval streets, or watching your children play in the plaza, playing tag while weaving through archways and columns, is the best kind of day.


It is the kind of place where magical things happen. We stayed in a hotel on this “main” street running through Santillana. Once upon a time, it was the house of the Marquis of Santillana del Mar, and it retains much of the charm of a 15th century manor. Our second night there, the restaurant across the street had a magnificent singer performing in the outdoor courtyard. The music tugged at our hearts. There was no resisting the pull of good music and good food to enjoy with those we love best in the world. We got our children dressed and went across the street to the restaurant for churros con chocolate, to be enjoyed as a light night treat. We ate together as a family, enjoying the music, but the magic of the evening could not just end there. We danced in the street with our children. It is a memory that they still recount, a magical moment that I hope they never forget. If only we could always find those magical moments in each day of our lives!




A Day for the Children: The Madrid Zoo

Part of the art of traveling with children is to balance more grown-up centered outings with those that cater directly to children. Our sixth day in Spain our children were showing signs of restlessness, so we took a day to visit the Madrid Zoo.


The zoo was an longer, but manageable metro ride from where we were staying near the Prado. From the metro stop, a pedestrian pathway meandered through outlying areas of the beautiful Casa de Campo, to finally arrive at the gates of the zoo.

The Madrid zoo has very successful breeding programs. I saw more baby animals with their mothers on our trip to this zoo than I’ve seen anywhere else. It also seemed to be designed with human children in mind as well. There was a giant playground near the entrance, and the exhibits were structured in such a way that even our smallest children had an easy time seeing the animals.


Several animals created with flowers on a metal frame decorated a field by the main entrance. It was a fun and fanciful introduction to a beautiful, relaxing day.


The Madrid zoo contains a small aquarium within it. This dolphin show was a highlight of our day at the zoo. In addition to the dolphin show, they also have a sea lion show that is a bit more informative and bit less exciting. An indoor aquarium area showcases different species of ocean dwelling fish species. A large center tank has sharks, sea turtles, and sting rays.


Before our trip to Spain, my husband told us about all the storks that build nests throughout Spain. Visiting a zoo in another country, one sees many familiar sights, but this one was new to me. The picture does not really capture the immense size of these birds and their nests.


No matter where we are in the world, my children are always overjoyed to see playgrounds.  They would probably have been happy relaxing at any playground, at the zoo or in the neighborhood near our hotel. In our future travels, we should make a point to spend a few minutes a day at a playground. Everyone is happier after playing outside. The children sleep better and are happier to spend time with their parents exploring.

What ways do you balance children and travel?

The Best Swords in Spain

According to my husband, Spain is the place to go in Europe if you want a souvenir sword. If you want more than just a souvenir, but a finely crafted blade, look no further than Toledo. But don’t worry. Toledo offers more than just finely crafted blades. Jewelry, plates, and other decorative pieces of damasquinado crafted by hand also beckon travelers to this amazing place.


Very close to the cathedral in Toledo is the store run by the Mariano Zamoraňo’s family. Mariano Zamoraňo Fábrica de Espadas y Armas Blancas is a fascinating place, even if you are not interested in making any purchases. On one side, you can find artisans creating damasquinado. Our children were enthralled with the detailed and delicate work, creating a design on blackened steel with a delicate thread of gold. The artisan we watched spoke only Spanish, but was happy to tell us all about his craft. We were able to watch him create a bird and flower pattern using a thin strand of gold. He showed us what the blackened Damascus steel looks like before applying the gold design. Then we watched as he quickly and expertly used a small tool to press the gold onto the steel. The gold shone brightly against the stark background. I think I fell in love with damasquinado while watching it being crafted. My girls were thrilled to leave the store with their own piece of damasquinado jewelry. I have to say, I was thrilled to leave the store with my own piece (or two) of damasquinado jewelry.


On the other side of the store, they sell what are, according to our guidebook, the best swords in Spain. Swords of all shapes and sized adorn the walls. The shopkeepers are very friendly, and invited us to go in the back workshop to see a sword being sharpened.


I love to see the process of how things are made. It’s quite impressive to think how lumps of metal through skill and hard work are crafted into beautiful swords! If you are interested in artisan crafts, be sure to visit Toledo!

Toledo: 600 Years in the Past


Toledo. Throughout its history it has served as a capital for the Romans, the Visigoths, and eventually by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who financed Columbus’s voyages to the new world. Sitting on a hill, the river Tagus bends around it on three sides, making it a military stronghold. The old city walls that once defended the city have mostly been torn down. It still visually shows what a great fortified stronghold it once was.

The night before our day trip to Toledo, my husband told our children that in the morning, we were going to take a magic train back in time 600 years. Their eyes grew big and round with excitement. I love that they still believe in magic!

And there is something so magical about Toledo, and how much it still resembles a medieval city. The train ride from Madrid is only half an hour from Atocha Station. The train station you arrive at is small, but beautiful. You walk through the train station and look up at the hill. There sits Toledo in all its beauty. A short 10 minute walk brings you through the gates and up into the walled city.


One thing I loved about Toledo were these long lengths of fabric hung over the streets that provided shade. Each street had a different style of lantern that hung beneath the fabric. I could easily imagine a hot summer day in medieval times, fabric hung to shield the people moving through the city with their carts and horses. Beautiful wrought iron balconies adorn the buildings.


And then you turn down one street and see the spire of the cathedral of Toledo rising up in the distance. This cathedral is truly spectacular, and alone worth a visit to Toledo. On one side is the entry for those wishing to worship in the cathedral. The opposite side has an entrance for tourists, that also provides audio tours in several languages. It is worth the entry fee to see the interior of the cathedral. El Greco lived and worked in Toledo for many years. Some of his work is featured in the cathedral itself.


Of all the cathedrals we saw on our trip to Spain, Toledo’s is my favorite. Even our children walked through the cathedral with eyes open wide with wonder and delight. Our seven year old listened to much of the audio tour, and loved finding the things it was talking about. I loved seeing their faces studying and thinking about the art. Even our baby enjoyed crawling around the vast, cavernous space on the cool, smooth stone floor.


I wonder what it really was like to be in Toledo 600 years ago? It is impossible to know for certain. A visit to Toledo is magical, whether or not you ride a magical train to get there.

Super Queso!

DSC_0068I always find it interesting what my children pick up while traveling in a foreign country. Last week we were grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. My two year old was was merrily pushing her little shopping cart along, when all of a sudden she stopped. A large grin spread across her face. She jumped up and down shouting something that sounded like “super castle”, and ran and grabbed two packs of Babybel cheese. My five year old watched what she was doing, also became very excited. She, too, ran over and grabbed several packs of Babybel cheese. I wasn’t quite sure where all the excitement over Babybel cheese was coming from. We usually buy string cheese for our cheesy snacks. But they were so excited, that we ended up taking home about five packs of Babybel cheese. All throughout the rest of our trip through Trader Joe’s my two year old kept singing aloud to herself in a way that only two year olds can. It still sounded like “super castle”, “super castle”, “super castle”.

After we checked out and made it to the car, and everyone was safely strapped in and contained, I decided it was time to find out where all the excitement came from. So I asked my five year old why she was so excited about the Babybel cheese. She said it was from an advertisement that we saw while we were in Spain. Then I finally realized that little Aeryn was saying “super queso”!

So now, Babybel cheese at our house is “super queso”. I hear requests for “super queso” everyday for snack time. Apparently, it was a very effective advertisement campaign, even in a foreign language. It has even crept into play time. Here is my oldest daughter playing “super queso”.

DSC_0045Here is the newest super hero in town. It’s Super Queso! She eats a lot of Babybel cheese.

Travel Theme: Land Meets Water

I love the travel themes provided by the fun travel blog, Where’s my backpack? I don’t always participate in the weekly themes, but some I find inspirational. This week the theme is about the meeting of water and land. I have lived by the water most of my life. Right now I live in a land-locked area, so maybe that’s why I find this week’s theme so compelling. I miss living by the water. Here are some of my favorite water images from around the world.


Tobago, looking north over the island


The view of the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean from the top of the Empire State Building, New York City


The Oasis in the desert at Huacachina, Peru


Looking out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Port Townsend, WA. You can see the outline of Canada in the hazy horizon.


The Mediterranean Sea crashing into the sea wall at Xania, Crete


The Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas on a beautiful, golden morning.


Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong Island


Flamenco Beach on the island of Culebra. It is a small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. And yes, that is a rusted old tank sitting on the beach.


The Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy


Santander, Spain

There is something so soothing and magical about the intersection between land and water. Even stormy seas crashing into the coast make me feel happy to be alive, witnessing such a glorious site. Here’s to coastlines whether big or small!

The Coolest Bathroom Ever!

Disco Ball_2

Our fourth day in Madrid, we decided to take a day trip to Toledo. There are two train stations in Madrid. Chamartin is in northern Madrid and handles all traffic heading to the north of Spain. Atocha is located closer to the south of Madrid, and handles all train traffic heading south. Toledo is located about 30 minutes south of Madrid by train, so we headed down to the Atocha train station to get our tickets and head on our way.

We were late for the train we wanted to make. We had a particularly difficult time waking up our children and getting them ready. Our hotel was about a ten minute walk from the train station, so we set out with our baby in our ergo, with my husband and our babysitter alternating running with and carrying several of the other children. Alas, we still did not make our intended train!

When we finally made it inside the train station, our five year old declared she needed the bathroom. So my husband and I split up. He went to find the ticket office and secure us tickets on a later train to Toledo. I, along with our babysitter and the rest of our children, set off to find the bathroom.

The Atocha train station is a little bit of a maze. It reminds me a little bit of Penn Station in NYC, but with more sunlight and less shopping. There are different areas for the local trains and express trains. There is also more security at Atocha due to terrorist attacks a few years ago. So, it took us a little while to find the bathroom. And when we got there, “Oh, no!!!” You had to pay to use it.

The last time I had to pay to use bathrooms in a public space like this was when my husband and I traveled to Peru about ten years ago. We were taking a bus from Lima to Huacachina to see the sand dunes. I drank way too much Inca cola before heading to the bus station. I ran for the bathroom only to be stopped from entering and asked for money. I didn’t have any with me, so I had to go back and find my husband to get some coins before using the bathroom.

You think I would have learned to always be prepared with some coins just in case there was a fee for the bathrooms! But no. I didn’t. My husband had taken the bag with our i.d.’s with him to get the tickets, which also had my cash supply in it. What was worse is that it was my little daughter who needed to use the bathroom. Because Atocha felt like such a maze of a train station, we decided that we would just have to wait for him to come back and find us.

Every few seconds I would look towards the bathroom, wondering if I should have my daughter hop over the turnstile and just pay for the bathroom use when my husband arrived. The pitiful amount of .60 euros was all that stood between my daughter and the bathroom. But, she didn’t want to go into the bathroom without me, and I didn’t really want to teach my children that it was okay to not pay for things, so we waited. I started to add up in my head just how much it would cost to use the bathroom if we all had to pay. There were seven people in our party altogether. I was pretty sure that our baby and two year old would be exempt from the bathroom fee. That still meant that it would cost 3 euros for all of us to use the bathroom. I must admit I was starting to feel a little outraged that we would have to pay that kind of cash for a bathroom visit. Then I noticed a door to the right of the main bathroom entrance. On the door it said “family bathroom”. Well, it said it in Spanish, but you know what I mean. And the best part is that the family bathroom only cost .60 euro for everyone! It turns out Spain is a very friendly country for families to travel in. And not just because of the bathrooms.

As soon as my husband found us, I grabbed the needed coins, paid the attendant, and ushered all my children into the family bathroom. We opened the door, and what we saw was the coolest bathroom ever! A disco ball twirled from the ceiling in the middle of the room, showering us with moving slivers of light. Soft music played lullabies to soothe even the most distressed and crying of babies. There was not one, but two, child-sized toilets for the children to use. A soft glider in pastel colors perfect for a nursing mother and baby stood off to the side of the room. A soft, cushy diaper changing area was next to the nursing chair. The lighting was soft and gentle, not harsh like in most bathrooms. It was clean and smelled of flowers. What a wonderful haven for a tired and frazzled family to find!

And that disco ball! All the rest of the amenities were lovely and inviting, but my children could not get over that disco ball! They felt like they were at the coolest party ever. It didn’t matter that it was in a bathroom.