Toledo: 600 Years in the Past

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

The Coolest Bathroom Ever!

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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.

Paul Salopek: The Man Walking the World

My husband has a genius ability for finding articles that are really interesting and off the beaten path. It matches his ability of finding off the beaten path travel locations. My husband is just pretty cool. His latest article discovery was this BBC article about Paul Salopek. He is a journalist/anthropologist who is walking the migratory path out of Africa taken by early migratory human groups into the rest of the world. He started in Ethiopia and is currently in the Republic of Georgia.

The article is a question and answer series that highlights some specific experiences, but also addresses why Paul Salopek is making this trek. He has a very interesting viewpoint about how walking creates connectivity between people and places. If you are interested in anthropology, psychology, and/or travel, you will probably enjoy the article.

I found it interesting that he disdains cars and planes as being devices that deprive us of really experiencing our surroundings. I have felt that on a very small scale moving from a community where my children and I could walk most places to a town where everything is a lengthy drive away. I miss the connection to the place we live that I had when we spent more time walking everywhere. And now with smart phones being so prevalent, I fear that connection is lost even more.

Someday my husband and I want to walk the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain. How does an experience like that change you as a person? I don’t know yet, but someday I want to find out.

You can follow this link below to the article. Enjoy!

www.bbc.com/travel/paul-salopek

Madrid: The Prado Museum

Outside the Prado

Outside the Prado

The second day we went to the Prado Museum, we were prepared to search for a few paintings that we really wanted to see. One was the “The Third of May 1808 in Madrid” by Goya. We had already been to the medieval wing of the Prado the day before. And our children can only handle so much time in art museums without being refreshed by more child-pleasing activities. So I wouldn’t say that we rushed through the museum, but we certainly did not spend a lot of time lingering on any one painting.

It is always interesting to see a painting in person that you have learned about. Some are more compelling in person. Some are less compelling. I remember going to an exhibit about five years ago of two of Van Gogh’s paintings, “Starry Night” and “Cypress Trees”. “Cypress Trees” had never really appealed to me, until I saw it in person. The texture of the paint, swirling in thick, textured patterns jumped out and made the scene seem alive in a way that it never had before. I had a similar experience with “The Third of May 1808 in Madrid”. It is hanging by its companion painting “The Second of May 1808 in Madrid: the charge of the Mamelukes”. The subject matter of both paintings is a battle between Napoleon’s soldiers and patriots from Madrid who rose up to fight and protect their homeland, only to be defeated and executed the following day. To stand in Madrid and see its history depicted in dark, sombre colors etched the history in my mind. Both paintings hang in a gallery of paintings by Goya known as the Black Paintings. Included in those 14 sombre works is “Saturn Devouring His Son”. This particular painting I have always found to be disturbing. Seeing it in person it was only more so. In fact, the entire room of the Black Paintings was a little too scary for our children. They asked to leave before we had moved a quarter of the way around the room. So my husband and I took turns in looking at the paintings in that particular area.

Other areas of the museum our children liked much better. Our 5 year old was especially transfixed by a painting depicting Helen of Troy’s abduction. One of the things I love about taking our children to art museums, is that I always learn something more about who they are by which paintings they respond to, and what questions they ask. Many history lessons or discussions about life have emerged from experiencing great works of art. I want them to grow up knowing the value of art, whether it is dance, painting, sculpture, music…….So even though it is sometimes stressful to take them to art museums, I cherish those invaluable moments with them.

Some beautiful memories were made outside the museum, too. Maybe they had to shake off the sombre mood from the Black Paintings. Maybe they just needed to run and play. We lounged in the sunshine as they gathered flowers on the hillside, and brought me piles of them.

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I just love their sweetness! How lucky a mommy am I?

Safest Cities to Live

The other day my husband showed my this BBC Article, about living in the world’s five safest cities. According to the BBC, they are Osaka (Tokyo), Amsterdam, Sydney, Singapore and Stockholm. What I like about the article is that it provides further information about what makes each city attractive to its citizens. Traveling with young children, the safety of the places we travel is more of a consideration in choosing locations than when we only had to worry about my husband and myself.

In looking at the list and reading about the cities, two thoughts came to mind. One, many of the safest cities are already on our list of desired travel destinations. Two, I felt a little sad that none of them are located inside the United States of America. Asia and Northern Europe seem to be doing the best job at creating safe havens for their citizens.

What travel destinations would you choose or possibly avoid based on their safety level? I’m curious to know your experiences.

Two Kinds of Kindness

The Kindness of Strangers

When my husband and I were planning our trip to Spain, part of what we discussed was the Spanish attitude towards breastfeeding, since our son was still in the nursing stage of babyhood. My husband lived in Spain for two years about 20 years ago. At that time, breastfeeding was associated with gypsy culture and was looked down on. I was a little nervous about nursing our baby in Spain, particularly because we would be out and in public as we toured the various museums and other attractions.

Aside from three older women glaring at me in Toledo, I didn’t have any negative experiences with nursing our baby in Spain. I did have two experiences where kindness was shown to me, and I am very grateful for that kindness.

Traveling with small children requires keeping track of many small details. The first Sunday that we were in Spain, we decided to go to church. Once we got there, I realized that I had forgotten to put my nursing cover in my bag. While I know there are many women who are comfortable nursing in public without a cover, I am not one of them. We were sitting down in church and my baby was hungry, and growing louder and louder in his desire to nurse. Another young mother loaned me her nursing cover so that I could feed my baby, diffusing what could have been a very stressful and difficult situation. My baby happily nursed under the borrowed cover until he was fully satisfied and happily drowsy. This small kindness from a kind stranger meant a lot to me.

Several days later we were shopping at Cortez Ingles when my little guy again needed to nurse. I had my cover with me this time, but was having a difficult time finding a comfortable place to nurse him. In American department stores the women’s restroom often has a section with comfortable seating that makes an excellent, quiet place to nurse a baby. So, I headed for the nearest restroom. By this time my baby was very fussy. There was no seating, and I didn’t want to sit on the floor, so I ended up sitting on the counter to nurse. A woman came into the bathroom and started speaking to me in Spanish. When I told her I didn’t understand her, that I didn’t speak Spanish, she switched to English. She told me she would find out if there was a more comfortable place for me to nurse my baby. She left the restroom and came back several minutes later. She had inquired with the staff at Cortez Ingles, and discovered that the third floor had a comfortable nursing area. While my little guy was almost finished at this time, I was touched by the kindness of this stranger, who went out of her way to make my situation more comfortable.

I had felt some anxiety about nursing our baby in Spain, but this actually brought me two wonderful reminders about the kindness of strangers when in a strange land. Spain is a country filled with kind people. And if you ever need to nurse at Cortez Ingles in Madrid, you know where to find the nursing room.

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The Gardens: A Feast for the Eyes

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We live in the desert. When we go to our botanical garden, we see cacti, succulents, and all sorts of interesting desert plants. In Madrid, the botanical garden is quite different. There are tall, shady trees. There are fountains and ponds. And of course, there is a wide variety of plant life that we just don’t get to see at home. It was a feast for our eyes, and a tranquil place to explore near the end of the day when our children were tired of museums and just wanted to run around enjoying the outdoors. Our two year old moved from spot to spot drawing interesting shapes in the dirt. The older two girls ran around, climbing on rocks and fountains, tenderly touching flower petals, and jumping off the benches. It was a great way to end a day of site seeing.

I really love the idea of gardens in the middle of busy cities like Madrid. In New York, Central Park is a haven to experience nature in the midst of a major metropolitan city. Boston’s Public Gardens are a beautiful juxtaposition to the gritty city outside its gates. Madrid’s Botanical Gardens offer the same respite from the busy city. Here are some of my favorite photographs of the gardens.

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DSC_0220What are your favorite public gardens? If you live in a city, where do you go to experience nature?

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Madrid: The Prado, Medieval Art

I must admit, in the past I have not really enjoyed medieval art. In the Met in New York, the medieval section was just an area to walk through as quickly as possible. Never did I feel the urge to linger and gaze upon medieval art there. It always felt too dark, too sombre. The human figure was not as exact as in later Renaissance art. Medieval art seemed to be very expressionless to me.

The Prado in Madrid was a completely different experience. Maybe it is because Spain was the world power during medieval times. Maybe medieval artists working in Spain were more skilled at their craft. Maybe it’s because I am a different person now. The medieval art in the Prado was my favorite section of the museum.

Beautiful canvas after beautiful canvas in deep, rich colors celebrated the life of Christ and other religious figures. The paintings provided an opportunity for me to speak to my children about scripture stories, the story of Christmas, and the importance religion played in the history of Spain. The rich visual material piqued their interest. While I’m glad that the scriptures are now available for all to read, I appreciate how these vivid depictions of scriptural content sparked conversations and learning opportunities.

What really spoke to me personally in the medieval art, were the many paintings of Mary nursing baby Jesus. Since I am currently nursing a baby boy, it makes sense that I would have a more personal connection with the subject matter. What really impressed me was the gentleness and tenderness that was portrayed in the relationship between mother and child.

Painting after beautiful painting showed the loving bond shared by mother and child. I have always thought of medieval times as somewhat austere and stern. In some ways, they probably were. But the natural relationship of mother and small baby was regarded as natural and beautiful. It drew me in and touched me. What a beautiful thing it is to care for and nurture a child! It can be daunting, frustrating, tiring, and sometimes monotonous. But tender moments bring joy greater than any of the negative feelings that sometimes come.

So hooray for medieval art and the Prado! If you don’t go, you will be missing out on a beautiful visual treasure.