Thursday, June 9, 2016

Europe- Our Highlights and some Must Sees and Do's...


Any and all touristy cities anywhere in the world have its must see locations. However, in planning our trip like this to Europe, with very little time in each city, we had to get picky about which 'must see' sites we would be able to see.  Again, the free walking tours we took, really were the most efficient ways to get in as many of these as possible in short amount of time. I think we actually did a pretty good job in getting in quite a few in the following cities:

Valencia:    The City of Arts of Sciences, Oceanografic
Madrid:      Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace
Rome:         The Colosseum, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Vatican City
France:       Notre Dame, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower
Edinburgh: Edinburgh Castle, The Royal Mile
Dublin:       Temple Bar, St. Patricks Cathedral
London:      Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, Big Ben

And there was so much more. However, there were highlights in each of these cities that were unique to our trip that I wanted to share. A lot of the special memories we made had to do with not just the sites we saw, but the people we shared it with and the discoveries we made together. Its times like those that can't be planned or predicted and yet so grateful when they just work out nicely.  Many of these highlights could easily turn into 'Must do's' in your own way.


VALENCIA, SPAIN

In Valencia we spent just a little under 24 hours so time was of the essence. But the highlight in itself was being with Christian and having him take us around to see major parts of the city. We wanted to see as much of what he had grown to love, the parts of the city that became his backdrop and his home for the last 9 months. It was so great to see just how much of a local he had become. I think we very quickly got a feel for the amazing environment he got to live in during that time. We will always be grateful to Valencia for having been so good to our boy, and look forward to having him return one day.

MADRID
We had a couple of highlights here. We spent our first day there with my cousin Carolina and her husband, Jorge, who currently live in northern Spain and came down to Madrid to meet up with us.
It was great to spend time with them, but the fun part was them taking us around Madrid, not bar hopping, but food hopping. They explained that the Spanish have a very set meal culture and it is not uncommon for most Spaniards to have at least 6 set meals per day- Breakfast, Mid morning, Lunch, Your after Siesta, Supper, and Dinner apparently is around 9pm. So in addition to showing us around, we walked, sat, ate and drank, then walked, sat, ate and drank a few more times at the quaintest little food markets and parks tasting and experiencing a little bit of that Spanish culture. That is something that Christian had been exposed to, but not something Jerry and I would probably have ever done on our own. We don't experiment much so that was soooo much fun! Food hopping anywhere in Europe is a must do!

A second highlight for us was definitely getting to see the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium of Madrid's soccer team, the Real Madrid. This team has become Christian's favorite football soccer team (by default ours too) and to see him react like a little kid in a candy shop was just fantastic. We didn't take a tour of the stadium, but we did, by some clever asking, get to go into the ritzy Real Cafe that sits at the bottom floor of the stadium with with wall to wall windows to check out the stadium for 3 euros each! Done deal! Best couple hours spent as we each had a drink, got to hang out, relax and gaze out at this beautiful stadium and watched them prepare the greens. A fantastic afternoon for sure.


ROME
Aside from Rome's beautiful sites, the highlight for us was the food, especially the pizza. Real Italian pizza, calzones and fresh bruschetta of which we had more than a couple of times, and each time at a different authentic location. We had fun finding these cute little restaurants and feeling like we were locals.  Each one delicious in there own way.

FRANCE
When in France, do as the French?...One of my dreams turned reality of going to Paris was to be able to have a picnic somewhere with a warm, fresh baguette in hand, meats, cheese and a bottle of wine. So our first day in the city, we set out to do just that. We had prepared in the morning by taking a few pre-bought items, but once we finished our Paris walking tour just in front of the Louvre gardens, we walked around to find the perfect baguette. Both Chris and I relished the walk back with baguettes in hand, and found a spot right in front of this beautiful fountain and made ourselves comfortable, and had ourselves a very "French" picnic.  It was one of the funnest things we could have done, and it gave us some time to really take in our Paris surroundings.  A must do in our opinion!

Another highlight in France was visiting the beautiful city of Montmarte Sacre Coeur.
 A historical city 300 meters of above Paris. There is this beautiful all white church of Sacre Couer at the center of it all, and the old Parisian city is one of my personal highlights. We had arrived just in time to hear a full mass, all in French along with a choir of very traditional nuns in  black and white habits. The moment that touched me the most though, was at the sign of the peace at which time I received more than one "Peace be with you" in a variety of languages...French, German, Filipino, and a few more I may not have recognized.  I was overcome with emotion and gratitude as I thought, where else but in France could you get such an international moment like that? A very special memory indeed. If not just for the church, but the city itself is a MUST SEE!

SCOTLAND
Scotland was a highlight in itself for many reasons- One because we actually got to visit 3 different cities with one stop- Dundee, St. Andrews and Edinburgh. And two because once again we got to spend it with family. My other cousin Natalia, (sister of Carolina from Madrid no less), her husband, Leo, and 2 her little boys happen to be living in the city of Dundee on a work relocation project for almost the last 2 years, and we were so lucky to have been able to catch up with them on the tail end of their stay in Scotland. They were gracious enough to let us stay at their house and showed us around Dundee and St. Andrews in some cold but uncharacteristically sunny weather- It was perfect.

Spanish Tapas in Scotland?!! Once again once of the highlights involves food and drink. Natalie and Leo took us out on the town in Dundee that evening and we hung out at a bar for drinks before dinner (something we don't ever do) and then took us to a popular Spanish restaurant for some real, traditional tapas...in Scotland! Go figure, but it was as authentic as if we would have been back in Spain. Such a popular place that Natalie had to make reservations a month prior to our arrival! So snazzy and this dinner was an event in itself. Every course was brought out and explained in Spanish (by a true Spaniard) as to what each course was and what region of Spain these tapas would most likely come from...WOW!! We enjoyed every minute and very bite of such a variety of dishes of the what...5+ courses we had? Soo much food! Chris really experimented and tasted pretty much everything. It was incredible as were some of the flavors we (Jerry and I) once again would have never ventured out to try if it weren't for such exposure. Yes, we are creatures of habit, but we soo appreciated them for expanding our culinary horizons. Spanish tapas...a must do anywhere you can get it.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND
Edinburgh was a city I was truly looking forward to visiting, not just because its so beautiful, but because of its ties to J.K. Rowling, and the whole Harry Potter Franchise. Yes, I know I'm an HP nerd, in a big way, and this was the beginning of my geeking out opportunities. Chris and Jerry had been warned.  So one of the highlight of this walking tour was in fact seeing street signs and all the little areas that the tour guide pointed out that truly did have something to do with JKR and where she got her inspirations for HP.  We visited Greyfriars Kirkyard (one of the most haunted graveyards in the world) in which we saw the original orphanage that was the basis for the school of Hogwarts because it really was separated into 4 houses, the tombstones of people buried with some of the proper names of some very popular HP characters such as Tom Riddle, McGonagall, Scrimgeour, and some others. He also pointed out the very cafe in which she wrote her story which is now a cafe called Spoon and another cafe that calls itself the original cafe the White Elephant cafe...who knows, but it was all really cool! 

DUBLIN, IRELAND

I actually forgot to post pictures on FB of our day in Dublin because it had come and gone so quick, but they weren't any less special. Dublin was a city we added to our trip because Chris had actually already spent time there and had fallen in love with this city and he really wanted us to get to love it too, so we did. In less than 24 hours we took it on with a walking tour and then Chris as our guide. We saw Dublin Castle, Trinity College, strolled down Temple Bar and Liffey River and stopped to watch street bands. Here once again, we we had a chance to meet up with family. Our brother in law, Bobby, happened to arrive in Dublin on the same day we did for a work trip and we met up for a quick conversation, lunch, and a silly picture to commemorate the visit.

One of the biggest highlights was going to the Guinness Storehouse. Omg, so much fun! Jerry and I are not big on drinking and beer is not one of my favorites either, but this brewery's self guided tour is so unique and well done that it has something for everyone. It is a beautiful circular building of about 7 stories and the tour takes you through each of these floors to learn about the Guinness making process, the ingredients, the storage process, the making of the barrels, and they even teach how to pour your own pint that you can then take to the rooftop bar that has a 360 degree view of Dublin...Incredible. We were even blessed with the view of a real Irish rainbow...the luck of the Irish was with us that day. Dublin was definitely worth the stop.

And last but not least...

LONDON, ENGLAND!!

This is a difficult one, as most of you can imagine. London has been on my bucket list to visit as far back as I can remember. I've always said that the day I would go to London would be the day I could die happy. Well I guess I can, but I think I will extend that until I can go back a second, maybe even a third time? It was just wonderful so to pick some of the highlights is very difficult. For me, everything from the tube, to the adorable telephone booths and taxis, the historical sites, to hearing people with that wonderful accent was a highlight for me. I loved it all really! But a couple of things did stand out:

The Changing of the Guard 
Most people watch the changing of the guard from Buckingham Palace. We, however, were lucky enough to be able to witness it during our London walking tour in what I would consider a little better way thanks to our tour guide, Charlotte, She knew exactly where the Royal Guard would be and when, and got us positioned literally right in front of them to witness their pomp and circumstance up close. I couldn't have been more excited to be in London than in that moment. Soo fantastic!!

The Globe Theater

I've mentioned the Globe already on FB, but I will mention it again and again when I can because it was that great of an experience. A complete highlight and a must do in London! You won't regret it. It truly was such a special night for us and an experience we will never forget. The theater in itself is Shakespeare brought back to life and to be in a stage like that immediately puts you in a different time and place and it makes you feel like you are a part of the play you're watching. We have never seen A Midnight's Summer Dream, but it is now one of our favorites. The actors gave this play a modern twist in several ways, and their commitment to their characters was just amazing. The singing, the dancing, the interaction was just electric. Soo much so that Jerry and Chris gave up leaving at intermission to watch a soccer game to stay to finish it off. That is saying something!

So there you are, some of the most memorable moments of our trip. I hope I didn't bombard you with too much, but there could have been many more but these were some on the top of the list. And I share them with you because sharing is caring. Some of these highlights had been suggestions made to us by others we know and I'm so glad they had told us about them. Recommendations are very valuable and they ultimately made a difference in our experience in Europe. So I hope that somehow I enticed you to visit, see or do one or a few of the things to make your trip special. On the flip side of that, there were definitely things we did not get a chance to do, but I am keeping notes for our next visit.  I would love to know what places and things you've done differently and exciting so I can add them to my list as well. The travel tips are next. Until next time!!


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Our trip to Europe...was it just a dream?


 Its been about 4 weeks since we got back from our trip and I have yet been able to completely wrap my head around the fact that after soo many months of planning, we’ve already came and went. I am still processing all that we saw and did in those 15 amazing days. Not a day goes by where I don’t remember or miss a particular city, or day dream about being back in each of those cities to the point of it making me emotional. The pictures I've already posted are just a preview to the camera roll I’ve had running through my head since getting home. Its taken me this long to even be able to begin writing about it because I’m not sure that I will be able to put this experience into words, but I am going to try.

People have asked me how it went and there are just not enough words to describe it all. It was truly a dream come true and that we were able to share that with Christian, made it all that much more special. The only thing missing was honestly being able to do this along with Danny and Mikey as well, but it just wasn’t possible for many reasons, and now it actually gives us a reason to go back hopefully sooner than later. I also want to take this chance to personally Thank my Mom, Jerry's parents and my brother and sister-n-law for helping us watch our boys while we were gone. We couldn't have done this trip without their willingness to take over for the 15 days, and the time and love they gave Danny and Mikey to make it easier for them is forever appreciated.

I think I will start off by saying that this trip, aside from being a dream come true, was a blessing from beginning to end. The sheer fact of having Chris studying abroad in Spain and London for his freshman year, was the opportunity, the gift, he gave us in return to travel to Europe in the first place. How could we not take this chance to go?  We had to! Soo many things fell into place also- the timing of the trip with our work schedules, the lodging we found, deals, airfares, packing, etc...including the fact that we were able to see and spend time with cousins in Madrid and Scotland, and a brother in law in Dublin...just incredible! The timing for all of this was just undeniably meant to be. 

We also truly did a lot of planning and early enough that it worked to our advantage. The planning we did alone is another blog post to come as it became crucial to being able to do this trip as efficiently and within a reasonable budget as possible. As I have mentioned on other trips, every trip we take is done on a budget or else we just can't do it. So I learned soo much in the process of planning a big trip like this that I feel like I have some useful tips and suggestions for any family out there that travel on budgets as well and might think a trip to Europe is out of the question. Now I know that it just takes some time, patience, lots of research, planning and breaking down your trip into doable parts, both financially and mentally. 

Christian’s school schedule gave us 15 days to move him and travel from the FSU Valencia study center to FSU London study Center, where he will be until August. So then the question became where would we travel to, how long in each city, etc?  Would we do just a few cities and stay longer or get in as many cities as possible? Many people suggested we were doing too much, but the fact that we don’t really know when the next time we will be back, we had to to take the chance to get as much in as possible. And honestly, as hectic and crazy it seemed at the time, I don't know that we would have done it any differently. So after much arranging and rearranging of calendars, flights, hotels and whatever else, we had picked our flight path: 

 
LAX to JFK to Madrid to Valencia
Valencia (1 day)
Madrid (2 days)
Rome (1.5 days)
Paris, (almost 2 days)
Edinburgh/Dundee, Scotland (2 days)
Dublin (24 hours)
London (3days)
LAX

8 cities, 1 train,  9 flights, 15 days...CRAZINESS!!

Never having been to Europe, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but Christian had already done his share of traveling. So he was definitely more prepared and we depended a lot more on him to help us navigate through the traveling challenges if any. He had done his best in warning of the possibility of burn-out, the reality of travel costs (for Jerry's sake), and that we were going to have to patient and just kind of go with the flow to prevent as much stress as possible. That part was the hardest for me, but more on that later.

We began our adventure in Valencia, where we so happily reunited with Christian. It honestly took me a couple of hours to really wrap my head around the fact that we were across the world in EUROPE! Omg! Let's just say that after being awake and traveling for 24+ hours, exhaustion and reality set in and my emotions hit me. It was soo surreal! I was sure I had to be dreaming...but I wasn't. I think that's how I felt off and on during the entirety our trip. Every new city/site gave us one or more of those 'WOW' moments. Jerry would keep reminding me..."You know that we're in, insert city here, right?" Yes, I knew, but all I could I could do is shake my head and close my eyes to soak it in each time. I will never forget that feeling.


Our Observations about Europe
We realized that although each city was different in its own way, they also had many similarities between them . So it might make it easier to describe our experience via some of the observations we made along the way.

The people
I don't know if it was just a case of 'the grass is always greener' but everybody was just so 'European'. Even the riff-raff on the streets seemed to be more, dare I say, 'cool?' I guess I'll chalk that up to travelers excitement. But seriously, for the most part the people we met and came into contact with with were remarkably nice and welcoming of us American's and were willing to help us when we needed it. Scotland in particular, had some of the nicest people ever!! Our French AirBnb host, Olivier, was the nicest Frenchman we could have ever met. It was refreshing to see that certain country stereo types were really non-existent. We also noticed just how many different cultures are living in Europe...a melting pot in its own right. Just awesome.

Languages/Lingo
Obviously each country had its own language and/or dialect for Spanish, French, Italian, English. However, it was so interesting to Jerry to see just how much lingo each country had and how it was used and how much. For example, in Spain, the word "Vale" could be heard all most too much and was used to say "Cool" or "Right on," "Yes" or even "Thank you." In Italy the word "Prego" did the same job, as "Cheers" did in Scotland/England and of course "Bonjour/Merci" in France. So of course when Jerry finally got used to using any particular lingo he would end up using it in the wrong country, lol. He's a wisecracker that one.

Also, for the first time, I can honestly say I felt a language barrier. In France I had a hard time remembering to say "Bonjour" at the beginning of each of my sentences. Christian had warned us that proper interaction with the French people was very important in getting a proper response for help. He was absolutely correct as I experienced a few times myself, so we let Chris take the lead in speaking for us most of the time, and he did such a great job with that. I was very impressed with him. I also thought it was fascinating to see how these different cultures were speaking with native accents. For example, In Dublin we had an Asian cafe owner speaking with us an Irish accent. Go figure! Soo interesting!!

Public Transportation
I cannot say enough about the public transportation in Europe.... WE LOVED IT!! I could write all day about this. I truly believe that Europe's public transportation system is amazing! No matter the city, be it the Metro/bus/underground lines...its the way to go! Some city systems took a little more time getting used to and we did catch the wrong one on occasion, but in general, it all just works soo systematically that it just made traveling from point A to point B a breeze. And as long as took proper precautions like keeping our belongings in front of us and closed to avoid pickpockets, we felt safe to ride it anytime of the day.  Depending on the city, it also allowed us to be able to look for lodging sometimes just outside the city center to make it more affordable. For example, in France, we stayed in the business district about a 30-40 minute drive outside of the city, but because they have an express train line, we would get into the city center in about 9 minutes. Soo convenient and it made all the difference for us.

Currency
Jerry being the money guy was challenged with European currency game. We knew that the Euro was the currency of choice for most of Europe including Dublin, Ireleand, but in the UK (Scotland and England it was the British pound.  We had to be mentally diligiant in remembering to switch between currencies. Going from Scotland to Dublin and then back to London in the UK became pretty tricky especially because the Euro and the Pound exchange at a fairly different rate. So I in particular had to keep reminding myself that 15£ was NOT $15 it really translated to being over $21. A big difference when trying to figure out the right amount.

Walking in Europe

I'm not sure if its because we live in California, but our tourist attractions are just too spread apart. One of the nice things of these European cities is that that the major tourist sites are all relatively in the same area or within walking distance from each other. Grant it even then, we walked A LOT!!! Our phone health app calculated that in the 15 days we were there we walked about 140+ miles! With our highest step count day being in France, clocking in at 15 miles. Crazy! Other than the metro we never took a cab and chose to walk when we could. We also took many walking tours that allowed us to take in a particular group of sites in each city in a matter of 2 hours each. . Exhausting, but it was worth every step. We realized the more we walked the more we discovered about each city. It was the best way to find those quaint little streets we wouldn't have seen otherwise.


The Architecture
One of Jerry's observations was that every European city could pretty much look like each other.  That by putting these three pictures together, you really wouldn't be able to tell that these 3 streets were from 3 different countries (Valencia, Paris, Edinburgh). Not that that was a bad thing, but it became clear that there was a definite influence of Romanesque and other cultural architectures in one or more of the countries we visited. We saw Greek, Egyptian and Gothic architecture throughout as well.  All of these influences have shaped and given Europe that special aura its known for and the one we go looking for and miss after we leave it. Its just wonderful.

Historical Ties
One of the many things we truly truly appreciated throughout this trip was the amount of history and historical ties involved in everything these cities had to offer.

We took free walking tours in each of these cities through SANDEMAN's New Europe tours company which is what bridged each city visit from being just a pretty tourist attraction to truly connecting its history to where and what we were seeing everyday. We got a history lesson and a scenic tour at the same time and we loved every minute of them. Fascinating information!

Each tour guide had their own set of stories and way helping us appreciate each city in their own way, and made each city experience that much more meaningful.  James was our tour guide in Dublin. He made this tour particularly memorable. Not only was born and raised in Dublin, but his personal ancestors had served a big part in Dublin's military history. He was enthusiastic and the pride he felt for his country was evident in the way he would tell every story. He taught us how to say "Sai Mila Folta" or "Welcome" in Gaelic, he even had us singing folk songs about Molly Malone. It was hard not to leave loving Dublin with a tour like that.

The truth is there is soo much more I could tell you about what we observed, but its hard to fully describe everything we saw, felt, and experienced. We can only hope that everyone at some point has the opportunity to travel to Europe and have their own European experience. There is nothing like it.  Its funny because I'm sure that Europeans feel the same way about coming to America and I had one person tell us how lucky we were to be from California, but we could have debated that back and forth all day as to who was truly the luckiest. Its all relative really, but we were happy to be in their space for a little bit.

We fell in love with something different from every amazing city we visited and I will be sharing some of those highlights later. We had someone tell us that once you go to Europe it just gets into your soul..and dang it they're so right!! We have been bitten with the bug and we totally long to back soo badly! We are soo grateful for how everything went for us- the weather was great, we saw more than we could have imagined, our flights were smooth, our Airbnb/hotel stays were absolutely phenomenal so we truly had a once in a lifetime experience. And yet there is soo much more to see, and so we need to go back...We HAVE to go back!