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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Tobago, looking north over the island

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

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The Oasis in the desert at Huacachina, Peru

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

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

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

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Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong Island

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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.

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The Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy

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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!

Madrid: In Search of Kilometer Zero

While preparing for our trip to Spain, I learned about kilometer zero. Considered the geographic center of Spain, the six major radial roads originating from Madrid are measured by their distance from this one spot. Many countries have their own kilometer zero, but in Spain, it is located in Madrid. When we set off on this beautiful morning, I hoped that we would find kilometer zero in our wanderings.

We first took the metro from our hotel up to Puerta del Sol, a major plaza in the heart of Madrid. We emerged from the metro to find a beautiful open area with flowers, a fountain, and gorgeous buildings surrounding us. Puerta del Sol is a hot spot for interesting street performers. We were greeted by Mickey Mouse and other childhood favorites, all trying to sell us balloons and other treasures for children. This was one of the most interesting.

DSC_0042Truthfully, I rather detest Barney as a character. However, I couldn’t resist the irony of Barney smoking. If I had been ready with my camera just five seconds earlier, the picture would have showed Barney smoking with his head still on. It was a strange juxtaposition; a childhood icon engaging in destructive behavior.

After enjoying the sights of Puerta del Sol, we made our way to Plaza Mayor. There is a tourist office there where we planned to buy Madrid cards for access to many of the sights and museums in Madrid. We were also looking for information on where to find Kilometer Zero. Plus, it is a major plaza in Madrid. We wouldn’t miss seeing it even if we had no other business to take us there other than enjoying the sights of the city.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor was built in the early 1600’s during the reign of Philip III. It was called by several different names during the centuries between Philip III and today. It was given the name of Plaza Mayor at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The plaza is beautiful, but more stoic than the piazzas in Italy. Most of the buildings around the plaza are built with the red brick, with one showcasing beautiful frescoes in a more pastel color. Beautiful archways ring the plaza, with larger archways leading out to pedestrian thoroughfares outside of Plaza Mayor. Our children were excited to chase pigeons in the big open space, but they were notoriously absent. There were a few here and there, called flying rats by waiters in the restaurants ringing the the plaza. There were, however, children kicking soccer balls back and forth, a sight we saw in many of the open plazas in Spain.

In the bottom right corner of this picture you can see a modern portable building that looks very out of place in the midst of the historic square. This is the tourist office. The tourist office can provide you with maps and information about the city. It is also one of the few places where you can purchase a Madrid card for access to many attractions, and a tourist card which gives you unlimited rides on Madrid’s metro and bus system. We purchased a three-day Madrid card, although you could spend weeks in Madrid and only see a small portion of all the sites available to you. We also learned that Kilometer Zero was back in Puerta del Sol. We would make our way back there that day, but we had a few other stops to make first.

Churros con Chocolate

Churros con Chocolate

My husband looked forward to the experience of eating churros con chocolate with me and his children for a long time before we traveled to Spain. Here, on our first day in Madrid, he found a delicious chocolateria close to Plaza Mayor for us to enjoy this quintessential Spanish dessert. The chocolate cake was delicious. The churros were wonderful. The setting was magical.

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Tucked away in a side street of Madrid, we ate outside feasting on the sights of Spanish architecture and decorative elements while being serenaded by an opera singer followed by an accordion player, both of who were skilled at their craft. After eating we followed the street down to a pedestrian walkway where a small bookstore sold beautiful watercolors of matadors battling the bull and flamenco dancers twisting and stomping with flourishes and flair.

Still in search of kilometer zero, we eventually made our way back to Puerta del Sol. It was later in the afternoon. It was crowded. My husband left the rest of us to battle the crowds and locate the kilometer marker we had come to find. In front of the clock tower on a building called “Real Casa de Correos”, which serves as the Spanish equivalent to the dropping of the ball in Time Square on New Year’s Eve, lies the marker of Kilometer Zero.

There were many tourists standing around waiting for the turn to take pictures of the famous zero kilometer marker. Our turn came, and my three beautiful daughters stood on the marker in their matching pink tennis shoes, solely to appease their mother. After we were finished taking the photo, I took a small moment to stand on the marker myself. I couldn’t come all this way and miss my chance to stand in the center of Spain, now could I?

Kilometer Zero, Madrid

Kilometer Zero, Madrid

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Spain: Modern and Medieval

Madrid: Breakfast with the Locals

Why I am writing this blog….

Madrid: Breakfast with the Locals

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Our first morning in Madrid, jet lagged and so very tired, we slept through the breakfast offered by our hotel. When we finally emerged from the bliss of sleep after a long day of traveling, we ventured out to find some food. Tucked away on a small side street several blocks from our hotel was a small cafe. We decided to give it a shot.

It was a Saturday morning, and customers were leisurely eating their food and reading the morning paper. I love how customers brought their dogs into the cafe! There was one woman who sat at a table by the window drinking her coffee and reading the paper the entire time we were there. Her little beagle was curled up contentedly at her feet. They made such a picturesque site with the morning light streaming in through the window!

It came time to order our food. My children were smart and went with the “classico”, which turned out to be toast with jam, a pretty safe choice. I was feeling a little adventurous, and decided to try the “espagnol”. I also tried to use what little Spanish I know to order orange juice as well. My husband amusedly smiled at my attempts. When I asked him what was so funny, I learned that in Spain juice is zumo, not jugo like in some other Spanish speaking countries. At least my orange juice came without any problems, so the waiter still understood me, even if I used the incorrect version of “juice”.

And then the “espagnol” came. This culinary concoction was toast with diced tomatoes and jamon on it. Jamon is a Spanish ham that is cured, or cooked with chemicals instead of with heat. I was optimistic. I like ham and tomatoes. It turns out however, that jamon on a jet lagged and slightly queasy stomach is not a really good idea. I bravely took about three bites before deciding that to continue to eat my “espagnol” was a very bad idea. I ended up eating a croissant; a buttery, flaky, and completely safe croissant. Indeed, from that morning on, a croissant became a staple in my breakfast for our entire trip.

So, my first experience with Spanish food wasn’t as successful as I would have liked. But the cafe was quaint. Everyone was energized for a day of site seeing. And that first foreign taste of Spain just made us more excited for the travel adventures to come.