Casco Viejo of Bilbao: Something Old and Something New

Bilbao is a city I would return to again and again. My husband had lived there many years ago as a missionary for our church. Twenty years ago, as he describes it, it was a dirty, industrial city. Now the industries are gone, it has been cleaned up, and features beautiful modern buildings like the Guggenheim. I would return just to see the Guggenheim again. The new and modern architecture of Bilbao is what probably comes to mind when you hear Bilbao mentioned, but a hidden jewel tucked away from the downtown area is Casco Viejo, the old city.

DSC_0253

Casco Viejo, Bilbao

The old city is filled with a unique character, and interesting shops. I wish we had more time and more money while we were there. Spanish fashion, both for children and women, is vibrant and interesting. Casco Viejo is filled with current trends and also traditional clothing for children. I really wish we had bought our son a traditional Basque outfit, complete with boina. We called him hombrecito while in Spain. With a boina, he would really have fit the part. In addition to clothing, there are many artisanal stores, with modern high end stores mixed in.

DSC_0257

Bilbao Athletic Club

In Toledo, the streets were draped with canvas to keep out the harsh sun. In Bilbao, the streets were draped with flags and banners celebrating the Athletic Club of Bilbao, their professional football club. It is an interesting mix of medieval and modern, much like all of Bilbao. It has a different feel from central Spain. The northern coast is more rainy and green than the rest of Spain. In fact, a couple we met from Ireland says it is just like the Irish coast. There are remnants of Celtic culture in northern Spain. The bagpipes are played. Many churches display celtic symbols. Bilbao is part of the Basque country. The Basque country has its own language, called either Basque or euskara. Bilbao displays its signs in both Spanish and euskara. This language is spoken only in the Basque country. It has no known linguistic relatives. This adds an exotic air to this northern Spanish brigadoon.

DSC_0261

Camino de Santiago Scallop Symbol

Wandering in Casco Viejo, we came upon this plaque in the street. My husband and I have talked about doing the Camino de Santiago with our children someday. The Camino de Santiago was one of the major Christian pilgrimages from medieval times. Legend says that the remains of St. James were buried in the town of Santiago de Compostela. The scallop shell is a symbol of this pilgrimage. Like the lines on the scallop shell, all lines lead to a single point. In this case, that single point is the remains of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. This plaque is modern day interpretation of the scallop shell symbol. We encountered other versions of the symbol, a scallop shell carved in stone, in other parts of northern Spain. We were thrilled to cross paths with the Camino de Santiago in Casco Viejo. Whether on the Camino de Santiago or other less formal trips to Bilbao, we hope to cross paths with Casco Viejo again.

Other posts about Bilbao:

The Longest Birthday

As a rule we try not to travel over major holidays and birthdays. With six people in our family, we always seem to be carrying a lot of stuff with us, even though we have rules to keep our luggage light. Everyone gets one carry-on bag. Each child has their own, unique, rolling bag from the Disney Store. They are bright and colorful so there is less chance of mistaken luggage. Each adult has one travel backpack. We designed these family travel rules to maximize our mobility, and to teach our children responsibility for their own belongings while traveling.

It is in part because of our desire to travel light that we don’t want to travel over Christmas Day or one of the children’s birthdays. We don’t want to have to bring extra things with us for the holiday/birthday, only to take them back home again.

Last year, we decided to travel to France during the winter break. We left the day after Christmas, and returned on January 6th. Schedules both with school and my husband’s job dictated in part our travel dates. The only problem? January 6th is our oldest daughter’s birthday.

We came up with a plan that would uniquely celebrate her birthday and minimize how long we would have to carry a birthday present around. Flying to Europe, we take a long flight to Heathrow, and then a shorter flight to our final destination. Our flight flies into Terminal 5 in Heathrow, where there is a delightful toy store. Our children are always begging us to buy them toys from there. As we passed through Heathrow on our way to Paris, we told our daughter that since we would be flying home through Heathrow, on her birthday she could pick out a toy from this toy store. We tried to create extra enthusiasm for this plan by telling her how special this birthday was. Because we were traveling west, her birthday would be the longest birthday ever! We thought we were brilliant. And bonus, we combined a lesson about planetary motion with our birthday plan! All during our trip, we tried to build excitement for her. She would have the longest birthday ever!

She was excited to have the longest birthday ever. She still thinks it is cool and special that her birthday lasted for about 36 hours instead of the traditional 24. The rest of our plan, however, did not go so smoothly.

It is true that on the way to Paris we traveled through Terminal 5. Unlike previous trips, however, we did not return through Terminal 5. We returned through Terminal 3. Now, Terminal 3 is a very nice terminal. We ate a delicious brunch. We perused a branch of Harrod’s. There was a kids’ area for them to play and get their squiggles out. The problem? There was no toy store. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Our plan was ruined! What could we do?

As luck would have it, there was a book store with a decent children’s section. While in France, none of our hotels offered the Disney Channel with shows our children are used to watching while we travel. Instead, our children discovered Ninjago. The book store had a book about the characters of Ninjago. So our daughter chose this book to be her birthday present. And she loved it. She still loves Ninjago. In fact, we made a special trip to Legoland when Ninjago World opened.

These are the lessons I take away from this experience:

  • It is a good idea to avoid travel on birthdays
  • If you must travel on a birthday, bring a small, suitable present with you
  • Do NOT rely on airport shops to buy a present
  • Having a longer birthday because of time changes is really cool for children (and adults)
  • You can never prepare for every situation, so be adaptable
  • Teach your children to be adaptable

What are your experiences traveling on a birthday or holiday?

 

 

The Puppy the Children Loved

dsc_0290

Our children love puppies. We have two small, white fluffy balls of love at home named Sophia and Garibaldi. The children miss them terribly when we travel. We take them to a “doggy hotel” whenever we leave town. I think our children secretly wish they could come with us when we travel.

Outside of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao stands this 43 foot tall puppy with flowers in all colors of the rainbow sprouting out all over it. It turns out the children of Bilbao loved this puppy, and didn’t want the puppy to leave them. This sculpture by Jeff Koons was supposed to be a temporary exhibit installed for the opening of the Guggenheim in 1997. I don’t know how long it was supposed to remain, but it was saved from demolition by the schoolchildren of Bilbao. They mounted a letter-writing campaign to keep the giant flower-sprouting puppy at the Guggenheim. I’m glad. It stands as an example of the voices of children being heard and positively affecting the world around them. This is a story I share with my children so they can have an example of the power they can wield. And I find joy in the commonalities we share all around the world. In this case, the love of puppies.

Through the Memory of a Child

I was sitting in church next to my oldest daughter, now 8, when she leans over to me and says,”Mama, I want to go back to that one museum.” As a family, we visit a lot of museums. I had no idea which one she wanted to visit. So I asked her, “Where did we visit the museum you want to see again?” She said, “I think it was in Spain.” Great. That narrowed it down to about 10 different museums in about 5 different cities. I needed more information. “What was in that museum that you want to see again?”

She then went on to describe the experience of walking through something shaped kind of like a ship, where the walls moved in and out, and it made you feel a little dizzy and a little sick. I thought about it, racking my brain for some kind of connection to her description. And then suddenly it clicked.

On our trip to Spain about a year and a half ago, we went to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This museum is worth the trip just for the building itself, but installed on the main floor as a permanent exhibition is Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time”. Several giant metal structures with wavy walls, some based in elliptical shapes, dominate the massive space of the gallery. It was designed as an experiential exhibit, allowing patrons to walk through each of the sculptures. I had never heard of this exhibit before, and I was a little intrigued. There was a sign warning people that walking through the structures could cause nausea and disorientation. That made me skeptical. Really? I didn’t believe that part. But I like to try new things, and so we walked through each of the structures in the gallery.

dsc_0292

The Guggenheim of Bilbao

Guess what? The experience of walking through curving structures where the walls lie at angles, sometimes seeming to close in on you above, sometimes narrowing beneath, sometimes seeming to lie parallel along an angular plain, really does affect how we experience space and time. Even while trying to maintain a regular pace, at times it felt like I was walking faster and at times slower. Our babysitter started feeling nauseous (poor girl) and had to sit down for a while. My skepticism melted away, and I felt in awe of how this sculpture affected my experience of space and time.

But I didn’t realize that it had profoundly affected my child as well. Almost two years later and without any inquiry on my part, she begged to go back and experience this art again. Sometimes traveling with children there are days that are tiring and difficult. Sometimes I wonder what they are taking away from all of these museums and architectural wonders, food and historical places, that we drag them to. These moments when I realize that our travels shape the way our children and experience and understand the world around them, makes all of it worth it. Someday, my darling, we’ll go back and visit the Guggenheim again.

gbm1996-2005_ph_web

Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time” courtesy of http://www.guggenheim.org 

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.

DSC_0213

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.

DSC_0218

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.

DSC_0220

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!

DSC_0225

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!

DSC_0235

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.

DSC_0152

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.

DSC_0184

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.

DSC_0201

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.

DSC_0209

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.

DSC_0083

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

DSC_0115

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

DSC_0097

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

DSC_0104

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.

DSC_0106

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.

DSC_0015

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.

DSC_0117

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!

DSC_0042

 

 

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.

DSC_0390

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.

DSC_0393

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.

DSC_0411

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.

DSC_0426

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.

DSC_0435

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.

DSC_0338

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.

DSC_0340

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.

DSC_0348

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!