Monday, July 25, 2011

Our Last Few weeks

These last few weeks in our overseas experience have simply flown by. I had hoped to document them along the way but life is what happens after you make other plans. My back went out for a little over a week and I was completely non-functional. Meanwhile the kids had a few days of sports camp before heading off to away camp. Today, the morning of our departure, I woke up at 5:30am and haven't been able to fall back asleep so here's the last few weeks in short.

Away Camps

Morgan went away to camp in Barria for a week. Here away camps are by lottery rather than first come first serve. The camp Morgan attended is run by the government and she signed up with a good friend. We arrived at the bus in Bilbao and all seemed fine for her. She climbed aboard the bus and then a few minutes later when all the kids were on, she came running off. Morgan had never been away from home for that long and wasn't so sure she could do it. In the end, she had a really good time, went swimming, did lots of crafts and sports , made new friends and loved all the counselors. The food was horrible but that's to be expected. Apparently they had a nightly dance that ended around 11:30, long after Morgan can usually keep her eyes open. All in all, I think she might even go away to camp again...

Maia also went away but she went to Pedernales which is a camp run by the bank, also a lottery. In her case she was not able to sign up with a friend but since she has been away before that was less of a concern. Her camp is near the ocean and in walking distance to our friend Marina's house, for those of you who knew Marina, the high school student that lived in Madison last year. Pedernales was a boarding school and it is very organized. Each child's bed has a number that matches the wardrobe and the towel hook in the bathroom. There are 2 swimming pools, lots of animals, ocean, biking, hiking, sailing, horseback riding, gymnastics, and a variety of other activity options. Needless to say, Maia had a great time and liked it better than horse camp in the states.

What I learned is kids are a bit more catered to at camp here. I have been told children are sacred and I'd have to say I agree with that in how they are treated. That isn't to say that they are all princes and princesses. The community is really built around children and making sure they have the parks, activities and the experiences available to them that the society deems important. That means all children regardless of socio-economic class or disability have access. The lottery is one example and the price of the camps is another. A week of day camp in the states is far more expensive than even overnight camp in Spain. Camps are for the kids to enjoy and learn both activities and values. The kids are responsible for their own things, but they are served. They don't have regular jobs of hopper and scraper at meals, they don't have to clean the bathrooms, and if they don't feel like making their beds, they don't have to do that either. Sheets and bath towels were provided for Maia while at Morgan's camp the kids slept in sleeping bags but bath towels were provided.

Our trip to pick Maia up included a visit to Mundaka to see Marina and her family one last time. We spent a bit of time at the beach with Morgan and then enjoyed lunch and the company of Marina's family before heading to the camp.

Despedidas, Until We Meet Again
For as beautiful and sunny as our day in Mundaka had been on Saturday, the following day when I had planned a "See you later" get together including beach and BBQ picnic, we ended up with rain, wind and cold. We had a last minute change of location, still outside but under a roof at Cevecera El Molino near where we live. Everyone survived the cold and we all agreed that this is what happens when you try to plan something. Hard to believe it was the 17th of July and we were in long pants and jackets. Regardless the company was great and that was what we were there for. Our friends from Vitoria came as well as Marina who traveled 2 hours alone to join us. Of course my exchange sisters, their families and many of our friends were also there.

In the short two days remaining the kids went to sports camp while Dean and I worked, packed the house and did as many of those last minute things as we could. I decided to bike my run and take pictures. Here's what I have been looking at for the past 7 months, although there weren't always leaves on all the trees...

Our last two nights were late ones as we got together with friends in the evenings which turned into night.

Dean and I spent late nights/early mornings packing and cleaning the apartment. Today is the morning of the end of our seven month adventure that flew by. We would all like to stay longer and we know we will be back, hopefully sooner rather than later...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Switzerland, A City View: Zurich, Schaffhausen & Old Friends

We decided to sleep in a little. Eventually we headed out beginning at the train station. From there we started a walking tour along the river towards the lake, Zürichsee.

I continue to be amazed by the beauty of Switzerland with its old buildings, many of which are painted with typical Swiss style, and the beauty of the rivers and lakes that run through so many of its cities. Add to that an incredibly efficient public transit system used by thousands daily and there isn't much to complain about, except perhaps the prices. We did well in buying a Swiss Pass which covered all of our transportation needs to and within all cities as well as many of the museums and other places we visited throughout the week.

Once we reached Zürichsee the girls were asking for a boat ride. We soon discovered that our Swiss Pass covered that as well. We hopped aboard a 90 minute boat trip on Zürichsee. The excursion took us to several ports of interest including Küsnacht, a fashionable suburb where I believe Tina Turner has a home, Thalwil, an important railway hub, Rüschlikon, a former farm village, now home to 3M and IBM, and Kilchberg Bendlikon, once home to a few famous writers and now home of Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate. It was a beautiful sunny day and quite relaxing. We discovered a few fine spots for a swim as well if we return on a warmer day. We arrived at the pier quite hungry and found a nice pasta place set back into the old town. From there we started back toward the train station and on to the hotel.

After dropping our things and regrouping it was time to meet up with Sofia and family. I met Sofia 24 years ago in Spain and we have remained in contact through letters, then email, holiday cards and on occasional visits in between. This was the first time that our kids would meet. Despite how many years had passed, we still connected like old friends. It was really great to see her and her husband again. The kids took a few minutes to warm up to each other but in no time they were playing quite well together. Spanish was the common language for them.

Dinner was amazing and I was so glad to be feeling well enough to eat again. The homemade pizza-like appetizer was followed by several kinds of grilled meats, salads, and corn. The weather was perfect for grilling out and they have a lovely home in the countryside making for just the right setting. During our time at their house we were visited by the neighboring cows and some horses that were out for a stroll. Dinner was followed by a lovely pastry assortment.

We headed back to the hotel full, happy and with a meeting plan for Sunday.

We met up with Sofia and family at the Zurich train station. The kids were happy to see each other again. We found our train to Wintertur where we then changed to Schauffhausen, 3 minutes between trains and a change of platforms but still made it with 4 kids and a stroller in tow. The Swiss rail system is an incredibly well greased wheel. Even the girls have come to appreciate train travel and public transportation done right.

Dean and I had visited Schaffhausen many years ago during the spring. It was quite different to see the falls in the summer with so much of the mountain snow having melted. The water was mesmerizing and extraordinarily loud.

We took the boat ride to approach the falls for some pictures and a quick shower. The kids seemed to enjoy the shower part. There were also some paths that went down along the cliffs to the side of the falls where we were able to get some nice photos.

By 1:30 we were all ready for lunch. Sofia had reserved a lovely table for us on the terrace of the castle. Just below the terrace was an old park which worked out well for the kids.

After enjoying our leisurely meal we decided on a visit to the castle. The view of the falls from the inside was quite nice and the tour was a bit curious. It was like a Walt Disney animated ride only the animations began as you entered each room rather than you sitting in a boat being driven by each scene. The animations told the history of the castle and the area during various periods of its use. Entertaining, informative but perhaps a bit cheesy.

From there we headed back to Zurich. As always we parted with an until next time rather than a goodbye as I'm sure we will meet again, hopefully at some point within the next decade. Monday morning, the 4th of July we headed back to Bilbao with only 16 days left in our 7 month adventure. Time is really flying by and there is never enough of it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Switzerland, A City View: Cheese, Chocolate & the Olympics

Probably the most anticipated day of the trip. Can there be a bad day when it includes a cheese factory and a chocolate factory tour? For most people not, but of course I managed to get a stomach virus so it was definitely not my best day... This day took us to La Gruyere region of Switzerland, a day trip from Bern.

We went at a normal pace rather than a Lauren pace but it was also a bit rainy so that worked out. Our first stop was Gruyère for the cheese factory. We had planned a trip up into the town which is really beautiful but it was raining so hard we decided to skip it. We ate lunch in the factory restaurant instead.

From there we took the train to Broc Fabrique for the Callier chocolate factory tour. It has changed a ton since our last visit. We started out seeing some old films on chocolate to pass the time while we waited our turn on the tour. The tour itself was quite interesting and completely animated with lights and sounds to bring ambiance to the story. It started from the discovery of chocolate and led us through to the current factory. There was a bit about how chocolate is made, without giving away any of the secret recipes of course. Following the tour and buying a few souvenirs, the kids played in the Calliers playground while we waited for the next train.

Here's what the girls have to say about what they liked best:
Morgan: I liked learning the history of chocolate because it was interesting.
Maia: I liked the tasting of the chocolate and the movie theater part.
(They are still girls of few words when put on the spot.)

We returned to Bern exhausted but in time to prepare dinner and to play a couple games of foosball before calling it a night.

We checked out of our hotel and took a few final pictures of Bern before heading to Lausanne. It was a an hour or so which was a nice rest for me as I was still a bit under the weather. Our main point of attraction was the Olympic Museum.

We took the metro down to the lakeshore where we had some food by the lake. From there we walked along the water spotting some really fun paddle boats. I'd love to have something like that on one of the Madison lakes for weekend enjoyment. We continued our walk until we came upon the Olympic Museum. We weren't allowed to take any pictures inside the museum but we did get some fun ones on the outside.

Here's what the girls have to say about what they liked best about the day:
Morgan: The torches were the most interesting part.
Maia: Everything!!!

When we finished at the museum it was time to head to Luzern for the night. I have always loved the beauty of that city and in past visits have wanted to stay there. We arrived to find that we were upgraded from the Rosli Guest House to the Baslertor Hotel about which I certainly wasn't going to complain.

Switzerland, A City View: Bern

We arrived at our hotel in Zurich around 8:30pm on Monday. Easy to find and great location. Typical Swiss hotel, no AC. It was around 25ºC/90ºF with our room on the 5th floor of the hotel. HOT! But the beds were comfortable as well as the sofa sleeper so that was the most important. We took military style showers or sponge baths as the water was ice cold. Apparently the water heater must have been out and they couldn't divert the sun to heat the shower water. Once we were out it felt good in the room.

First thing Tuesday morning we found breakfast at the pastry shop on the corner. Then we gathered our belongings to head to Bern. We'll be back in Zurich for the weekend so we didn't take the time to see any of it at the moment.

We hit Bern around 11:30 and quickly caught a tram to the Backpackers Hostel. They are closed between 12-3pm so we would have been stuck with our luggage if we hadn't arrived in time. Our room is phenomenal. Spacious with 2 single beds and 2 bunk beds along with lots of floor space, a very unusual find in Switzerland.

Another sweltering hot 90 degree day. We grabbed picnic lunch and headed to a park. Challah and salami with gruyere followed by some fruit hits the spot. By the way, the pre-made challah sandwiches were with ham. I never quite understood that combination but it always humors me.

We then headed down the main shopping street towards the bear pit or perhaps I should now say enclosure as it is a much improved space over the original dry barren pit. The pit now has a small gift shop and the enclosure is a large hillside with a water stream below.

We abandoned our original plan to head to the Rosengarten due to the heat. Instead we opted to head back to the hotel for our bathing suits and check out the free public pool beside the river, a perfect spot for a steamy hot day. The pool was definitely refreshing. After a bit of swimming, Maia and I decided on a short float down the river. The current is extremely fast and we didn't have good shoes to wear so we went barefoot. Staying close to the shoreline was a bit hard on our feet but we weren't going to venture too far, only from one stop to the next. A nice experience but a bit scary with a kid. Maia, my amusement park thrill rider, didn't want to do any more than what we had done. The float part was fine but the getting out was challenging. Maybe when she is older we'll be a bit more adventurous about the experience.

After a brat, another dip in the pool, and some ice cream, we were ready to head back to the hostel. We walked by the Parliament and the splash park after riding the tram up the hill.

On our way back we realized that the stores close at 7pm and we still needed to buy dinner and breakfast. One of the nice things about our hostel is the ability to buy, store and cook food in the kitchen. So after a bit of grocery shopping we were in for the night. Fed, showered and exhausted, we headed for bed.

Scenes of Bern

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Westward Expansion: Our View

At some point we do have to recognize that there is more to the north than just the Basque Region. We decided to take one more excursion but this time we went west through Cantabria. Once again we took Patricia, Eusebio, and their girls with us as it is always more fun to explore new places together.

Saturday, June 18
We started out in the morning towards Santillana del Mar. On the way we made a reservation to tour El Soplao, a cave in the mountains south of San Vicente de la Barquera. Due to time constraints we decided to skip Santillana del Mar and head straight to Comillas. Having done a little research ahead of time I knew that we would be able to get some pictures of El Capricho de Gaudi. It was like a candyland house. So cool. It was one of Gaudí's earlier works assigned to him by his master who was to design the palace found just up the hill from El Capricho. To get pictures from the outside we headed up that hill towards El Palacio de Sobrellano.

More interesting to us than the palace itself were some of the sculptures on the outside. As you can see, the girls enjoyed climbing in and around them.

Below the palace was a field where they were having a medieval festival. We would have liked to check it out but we were short on time to make it to our date with the cave. We headed down the hill and took a quick loop through the center of town. It's a really lovely place and next time we will have to plan to spend some more time there for sure.

Returning to our cars, we headed to El Soplao which was definitely worth it. It was the Florida mine up in the mountains that was being worked when in the beginning of the 20th Century the miners discovered the cave. It was only recently opened for tourism. Our tour began with a short ride on a miner's train car to enter the cave. Once inside we had an hour long tour. The cave consists of more than 30 kilometers of galleries. From the entrance there is a 35ft. drop into the gallery called "La Gorda", named for its immense size, with a maximum height over 60ft. There was another gallery called "Los Fantasmas" (The Ghosts) named for its huge white stalagmites. Unfortunately I can't remember the names of all the galleries but there was one with a low ceiling full of eccentric stalactites. They are considered eccentric because they are growing horizontally to the floor. There are a few theories for what causes them to form that way but no one is absolutely sure. I've visited a few caves but never have I seen one so big or with so many eccentric formations. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside but you can see a bit of it here.

The tour ended around 3pm and we were starving. We headed to San Vicente de la Barquera. There we found lunch, really huge ice cream and took a walk up the hill to the monument section of town. We visited the outside of the Santa María de los Ángeles church. The views were certainly nice from up there. On our way back down the hill we went into the Castillo del Rey. There were a few artifacts left inside but mostly it was for the views from the outside. When we finished there it was getting late and the kids were getting tired. We did make our way to the lighthouse, which wasn't as interesting as expected. Then we headed for the breakwater known as La Barra. The water was really rough in that area and fascinating to watch.

Next stop, home. It was a long day and everyone, not driving, fell asleep on the way home.

Sunday, June 19
We definitely had a slow morning after our long day but there was still a bit more of Cantabria we wanted to see. We headed out to Laredo where we spent a few hours on the beach with a picnic lunch. The sand was very soft and the water really welcoming. It is a beach of about 4 km in length, known as the longest in the area. Once we were sufficiently lobster-like where we weren't careful enough with lotion, we decided to head out.

We went to a town called Castro Urdiales which is still Cantabria but just the other side of the border of the Basque Country. It was a nice town. From the point, we could see La Galea and the windmills that mark the area of Getxo near where we live. We did a typical walk around the monuments and old area of town. While we didn't make it to the natural pool, we were told they have one. Our next trip I'd like to spend a little time in the water as it seemed very inviting.

There's never enough time for all that we want to do so we are doing our best to enjoy the time that we have.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

School Goes Out Fighting...

One thing the Basque people are never short on is finding ways to enjoy themselves and the company of others. The end of the school year is no exception, and yes teachers in all countries are always up for a good party.

Friday the 17th was the last Friday of the school year and was the all school party. According to the girls, the party started about 9:30 with all school games on the patio. I missed that part so I don't have much in the way of details.

However, at 12:30 the parents were invited. The afternoon started with graduation which consisted of the fifth graders handing the sixth graders their framed class picture. After the hugs and pictures, the incredibly awesome music teacher who is retiring, was presented with a violin. She had been talking about learning to play during her retirement. Then the festivities began.

First there were a series of musical performances, a very entertaining play by 4th & 5th graders using idioms, followed by dances done by all the grades. Here are some pictures as my video shoot didn't work out so well. (Oh, and Morgan's wrist wrap, just 8 year old drama...)

Following the dance, hunger had definitely set in. It was a beautiful sunny day and banquet tables and chairs had been set up on the grass in the shade. We joined a group that had ordered delivery of cheeseburgers, roasted chicken, tortilla patata, and croquetas. Do potatoes count as vegetables? We served the kids first. As we were serving, the teachers, who had a few tables reserved that extended off of our section, were bringing out food that made for a banquet. It wasn't large pots of things to share but rather a typical Spanish-style celebratory lunch. The "first plate" was a series of beautifully designed appetizers, or pintxos as they are known here. This was followed by "larger food" and then dessert. The kids had finished eating before all the teachers' food made it to the table.

At this point I began thinking, "this could never happen at the kid's school in the states." First off following the meal was the water gun fight. A water fight could definitely happen on school grounds in the states but I'm not so sure that the "gun" version would be acceptable. While the kids enjoyed that, under the supervision of the extracurricular activities monitors, the parents and teachers ate, and drank. Drank, yes, that's the other part that could never happen in the states. Some people brought wine and beer. The teachers even had bottles of champagne. No one by any means got out of hand. It is quite typical during the large meal eaten between 2:30-4pm in Spain that wine is served. The school patio was no exception, apparently.

Eventually the teachers headed home but several families stayed on. We were there until around 7:30pm. Once the kids had enough water, there were games as well as face painting, molding clay, and other art options.

The rest of the events to end the year were kid-only activities such as cleaning their things out of the class room, a class party and an all school field trip to Salinas de Añana. As with all school trips here, the parents are not asked to chaperone. In addition to an educational experience, the students enjoyed a salt spa, picnic, and yet another water fight. According to the Morgan it was superrequetebien. They returned tired but happy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Tourist's View: Part III The Final Chapter

Hard to believe Kevin and Lynne's trip was already nearing an end. By Monday they were well adjusted to the time zone. So, it was the day of the grand tour from Algorta to Bilbao. We put on our walking shoes (no we didn't walk all the way to Bilbao...).

We started outside their Hotel High Tech Tamarises and walked along the coast toward Las Arenas. Its a very nice stroll along the water which included in numerous locations plaques describing the historic mansions we were passing along the way.

We crossed the Nervión river on the Puente Vizcaya to Portugalete, where I had lived. From there it was an uphill walk through the Casco Histórico and then on to catch the metro to Bilbao. It was nice to share a little bit of Portugalete with friends. I was hoping to stop for coffee in La Giroa, the bar that once played "Born in the USA" every time I entered, but it was closed. We continued on to the metro.

We got out in the Casco Viejo, Bilbao which has that typical narrow street, old building, no cars feeling that characterizes many cities in Spain. It is the one area of Bilbao that really hasn't changed. The store names have changed but the overall look and feel is still the same. After a beverage and some outstanding and unusual pintxos in the Plaza Nueva we stopped in the cathedral. I had never been in it before. While there were clearly some people in there to pray, I was surprised by the number of tourists inside taking pictures on a Monday morning.

As we moved out of the Casco Viejo area we happened upon a rather curious garden. As it turns out Bilbao is in the middle of some sort of a garden competition event. I couldn't decide whether what we found was funny or creepy. What's your vote? Oh, and yes it did win an award.

From there we crossed back over the River Nervion (crossed from Las Arenas to Portugalete, crossed again in the metro to Bilbao, twice, and now again to head to the center of the city.) The River Nervion snakes around. As we crossed, the backside of the train station caught my eye. Architecture along the river is quite beautiful. Once across, we walked the pedestrian mall that parallels la Gran Via. We were in search of the best looking typical pastry we could find, including pastel vasco. It was our last night together with Kevin and Lynn as well as being their anniversary. We found what we were looking for on the corner of the Gran Vía near Moyua.

Following our purchase we continued on to La Alhondiga. As described in earlier posts, its a very unique and beautiful building both inside and out. Before we entered we came upon a mirror with a bronzed frame.  Perfect for taking a picture of your reflection. The inside of the building however has low lighting which doesn't ever seem to work well for pictures. At that point hunger was setting in so we headed to Moyua and filled ourselves with more amazing pintxos from El Globo, my favorite pintxo spot, followed by ice cream from Heladería Alaska.

Our final destination, the Guggenheim. Unfortunately it is closed on Monday's. So, we settled for some good pictures from the outside. I had to leave the group behind as it was nearing 4pm and I needed to pick up the girls from school by 4:30.

Eventually we all met back in Algorta. Our evening ended with a nice home cooked meal and, of course, the pastries we picked up earlier in the day.

Tuesday was a short morning as we only had a bit of time to share breakfast with Kevin and Lynne, and take a walk back through the Puerto Viejo of Algorta and along the beach before the cab to the airport arrived.

It was a very quick five days together but I think we all enjoyed it. Every once in a while it's important to play tour guide in your own city. Too often we forget to look up and to see what we have until it is time to discover and share it through the eyes of a tourist.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Tourist's View: Part II The Basque Coast

In this part, I no longer get to play tour guide. Together we discovered Guipuzkoa and southern France visiting places new to all of us.

Our plan included meeting friends at noon. On the way we stopped in Gernika. The last time the Casa de Juntas building was closed. This trip we had just enough time to see it. The building is quite beautiful and I especially enjoyed the stained glass ceiling. Of course it was nice to get some close up pictures of the original and the offspring famous Árboles de Gernika, the very important oak trees I talked about in my previous post.

From there we headed to Lekeitio where we found our friends from Vitoria, José, Rosa, and their girls. They had met Kevin and Lynne on a previous trip to the states when we were all in California together. It was nice to have them as our tour guides along the coast.

After walking around Leketio for a bit we began our drive along the coast. The scenery was amazing and the roads were quite curvy. Morgan learned the hard way that she needed to look out the window, not down at her DS. We went through several small towns along the coast and eventually stopped at Zarautz. It was nice to get out of the car, stretch our legs and find a meal. As it turns out, we happened upon a triathlon. It was a really nice course as the swim started in a neighboring town and finished on the beach of Zarautz. Our lunch spot was right along the rows of bikes. I'm not sure where the bike and run went exactly but with the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, it had to be a beautiful course.

We have noticed that they take their races seriously here. They have relatively short time maximums on their courses so that if the racer doesn't finish each event within a certain amount of time, the racer is disqualified and not allowed to finish. I suspect that makes it easier for the race officials and volunteers. Of course that would also be very disappointing for someone who has trained for a race and then doesn't get to finish it.

Following lunch The kids let out some steam on the beach and in a park.

Our travels continued on to San Sebastian. Parking and traffic were tight as always so we headed up Monte Igueldo to take in the spectacular views of San Sebastian below and a bit of amusement. From the top of the tower which was built in 1778 as a lighthouse, we had a great view of the city, the ocean and the amusement park. The girls took a ride on the roller coaster, known as the Montaña Suiza (not rusa). In the center of the tram is a man whose job is to handbrake the coaster throughout the ride. Can you imagine spending your entire day on a roller coaster, repeating the same ride? Another unique feature is the view of the Cantabrian Sea from the coaster set in the mountains. So, I guess if you have to ride a coaster all day long it helps to have amazing views.

Not far from San Sebastian we found our casa rural, Artola, in the mountains. It was in a great location overlooking the coast. We were welcomed by a herd of grazing sheep. The downstairs part is a sidrería, cider house, but it wasn't serving on Saturday as it's a small family run place and it's past season. After settling into our rooms, we headed down the mountain for dinner. We ate at Petritegi Sagardotegia cider house. The food was delicious and plentiful but the girls favorite part was catching the cider in the glass. There is an art to it and according to those who frequent these places, the cider tastes different if it is poured from far away and hits the bottom of the glass with a splash.

After breakfast we headed to France. We visited a really cute town in the Basque region called San Juan de La Luz. The walk around town was beautiful yet much more touristy than any of the other places we have been. Many little souvenir shops and specialty shops selling "traditional" goods such as woven shoes and items made from striped fabrics that are typical of the Basque region. We also happened upon some sort of horse event as there was a parade of people on horseback dressed in traditional costume and marching their horses. We saw no graffiti on the walls of this French Basque community unlike what we have seen in much of the Spanish Basque region.

We then moved on to Hendaya where we stopped for lunch and to take in the views. It was there that we parted ways with our friends from Vitoria.

We decided to head home stopping for a quick photo shoot in Mutriku. One of the more interesting features we saw was a "natural" pool. They had built a wall in the ocean in a protected but relatively deep area. The tide naturally fills and cleans the pool daily. It was protected so safe for people of all ages to swim and big enough for lap swimming.

All in all it was a busy but very nice weekend of seeing new sights and sharing time with good friends.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Tourist's View: Part I

For over 20 years the Basque Country of Spain has had a tremendous influence on my life. In fact it changed my career path. In that time I have had few opportunities to introduce this world to close family and friends. Other than my husband and children, no one we know from the states has seen or experienced life here the way that I have. That is until now...

A few weeks ago friend, Sarah, from Madison came on a work trip and I had one rainy day to give her a quick tour. That helped me think about what places and spaces have left the greatest imprint on my life. Then on Thursday, June 9 our good friends Kevin and Lynne arrived from California to spend several days with us. It's amazing what you start to pay attention to once you play tour guide in your own city. Of course paying attention to Kevin and where his professional camera pointed helped me to see things I hadn't noticed as well...

We began with a quick Thursday evening trip through Sopelana. That's the small town we usually stay in when we come to visit.

The girls went to art class and the rain held off long enough for us to take a walk to the wall for a nice view of the beach. We then took a quick snack and drink break at La Kala our favorite bar, while Morgan and Maia finished their class. My sister MaLuz stopped by to chat with us for a bit before we caught the metro home. Kevin and Lynne did quite well on jet lag and little sleep.

Friday the weather was a bit dreary and we were keeping things pretty low key. We took a tour of Algorta starting at the Hotel High Tech Tamarises. From there we walked along the beach and into the Puerto Viejo. It's a beautiful part of the city which has been well preserved.

After wandering the streets for some photo ops we headed on a path toward a cafe on the hillside where we sat for a cup of coffee. The views were fantastic. We kept running into a group of woman with a tour guide. I took that as a good sign. Clearly our tour must have hit the important points along the way.

From there we continued on the streets that followed the curve of the coastline, stopping at a bakery for a bit of typical San Juan pastry, which is available only at this time of year. On June 23 is the celebration which includes bonfires and festivities at the beach. I'm not sure of the details yet.

We headed to La Galea, which is a walk along the cliffs next to the ocean. We decided to check out the ruins of the old fort.

While we were enjoying the walk we eventually looped back for lunch at home and to pick up the girls from school. Friday night we headed up to the new Algorta station park where our friends Patricia, Eusebio and their girls joined us. The evening was full of conversation, pintxos, and relaxation in outdoor terraces. Very typical of a night on the town as they are celebrated here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friends & Family

The past two weekends we have stayed close to home. We are trying to enjoy as much time as we can with family and friends and visiting some of our favorite places. I can't believe how quickly five and a half months can go. In the remainder of our stay we will balance our time spent with family and friends, with seeing and doing as much as we can in the short time we have left.

Weekend 1: May 28-29
Saturday we spent shopping as the girls have outgrown many of their clothes. I suspect there is a little more shopping to be done before they go off to summer camp here as well. I didn't really plan for away camp when we packed for this trip. My guess for their growth spurts is the good nutrition in the school lunches. Coming from the states I never thought it was possible to have "good nutrition" and "school lunch" in the same sentence. Hopefully upon returning to the states we can maintain at least some of the habits and routines we have picked up here.

Sunday, Beatriz and family invited us to Nando's parent's house in Gorliz. Gorliz is the neighboring town to Plentzia. Andrea, Bea and our gang took the metro to Plentzia and walked along the ocean to the Gorliz beach. The girls always love spending time with cousin Andrea.  It was a beautiful day, perfect weather for the beach and ocean. We also happened upon a collector's car show. Nando met us a little later as he rode in on a vintage motorcycle.

The sand was great for playing and the water, well, it was more like ice but that never seems to stop the kids.

After a few hours at the beach we headed up to the house for lunch where we were joined by Nando, his mother and his aunt. Lunch was followed by some time to relax,  work on an enormous puzzle, and give the kids rides on the vintage moto around the abandoned tennis court.

Weekend 2: June 3- 5
Again the weather was perfect despite the predictions for rain. We started by pulling the girls out of after school activities and went with Viviana, Raul and Fernanda to a beautiful park in the woods of Leioa. The girls played, we all ate and then played some more..

Saturday was very spontaneous but worked out quite well. We started our day with a bike ride picking up Morgan and Maia's friends, Eugenia and Alejandra, along the way. We headed to Las Arenas where we found La Feria de Movilidad Sostenible, a festival on green transportation. They had some learning games the kids participated in about different kinds of energy, various electric cars and bikes, and other literature to fill our backpacks.

From there we continued our ride through Las Arenas to the path that goes along the ocean. We stopped for a drink, to climb a tree, and enter a cave... because we can...

Our return of Alejandra and Eugenia evolved into lunch at a Cervecera in Berango to which we were able to bike. Cerveceras are very common in this area of Spain. Typically they offer both indoor and outdoor seating and most of them have a park or similar to entertain the kids. The idea is to go with a large group of people, order roasted chicken, fries, salad, and other options including tortilla patata, croquetas, pimientos verdes,... You order at a counter and bring it all to the table to eat family style. We arrived around 3:30pm, a pretty typical time for the biggest meal of the day in Spain. We stayed until after 8pm as the kids enjoyed the park and we were enjoying the company of our friends. Fun for the kids never stopped as the evening ended in a sleepover. All in all it was a long but great day.

Sunday was a day of putting together some puzzle pieces. I learned in January that some colleagues of mine from Wisconsin, north of Madison, have roots in the Basque region. Cristina, a Spanish professor is from San Sebastian, about 1 hour from Bilbao. More recently I learned that she and David, who is on the committee for the program I direct, have two children, very close in age to our girls. We decided it was time our families meet so they came to Bilbao.

We began at the Museo de Bellas Artes.  It's perhaps a bit crazy to think that 4 kids between ages 8-11 are going to truly appreciate and want to hang out in an art museum so we introduced a game. They had a list, a scavenger hunt of items to find in the paintings, about 25 or so, and they got points for what they found. The items had different point values depending on how hard I presumed it would be to find them. We inter-mixed the kids, the 2 oldest and the 2 youngest. They were totally engaged and did quite well. In addition to the regular exhibition there was an exhibit by Daniel Tamayo, an artist from Bilbao, whose work is imaginative, colorful and busy so a great option for the kids to study as they looked for objects. I don't think I have ever enjoyed an art museum so much with kids in my life. Morgan and Maia were clearly more entertained there than they were at the Guggenheim.

From the museum we headed for lunch where we met Begonia. (Spanish speakers, I know it is typically spelled with an ñ but everyone that I have seen write her name spells it like the flower.) Anyway, Begonia has been a friend of my sister MaLuz for a long time, as well as a friend of Cristina's from back when they were both studying in Cincinnati. She is also connected to people at the Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, with whom I have made connections. So, the world is small and it was nice to finally place that piece of the puzzle.

After lunch we headed to the park by the Guggenheim where the kids could burn off some energy before going for ice cream.

We finished our day with a visit to the Alhondiga, an amazing building both in its beauty and its contents. It combines, cultural exhibitions, with a beautiful library, and a recreational sports center with a pool. There is also a cafe, gift shop, money machine, cinema, if they had beds, one could live there and never have to leave.

We arrived home a bit after eight, exhausted but happy. Our kids now have another Wisconsin family with whom they can connect on many levels as their new friends also lived and studied at an elementary school in San Sebastian during Spring 2010.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

More Than Just a Danish

Now that we have answered our burning question, we must move on to the other amazing sights of Denmark...

Day 3: Klampenborg

After the rain passed we headed on a hike into the woods. Henrik and Astrid are living very close to Jægersborg Dyrehave, the Deer Garden. The walk was beautiful as we were surrounded by oak trees. The forest is kept natural so the trees that die and fall are not removed unless they are somehow endangering people or animals. We saw tons of deer, including some albino. Eventually we arrived at Eremitageslottet a palace built during the rein of Christian VI.

On the route back we saw some beautiful swan. As we neared the entrance, we arrived at Dyrehavsbakken the world's oldest amusement park . It was great with all its old time feel, some rickety rides, and many places to stop for a beer, ice cream, churros (the Spanish solution to funnel cakes), cotton candy and popcorn. Dean and Morgan went on a  tropical forest ride where they got to shoot at bugs. Maia, Henrik, Astrid and I went for the famous roller coaster, the Rutschebanen (Danish for "The Roller Coaster"), which is a wooden roller coaster that opened in 1932. It is a really tall rickety old coaster with great speed, twists and turns. Quite impressive, especially for its age. We ended with very tall ice cream as that seems to be the only way to order ice cream in Denmark. It was a great way to finish our visit to that area.

We packed up our belongings and headed to Middelfart which is about 2 hours northwest of Copenhagen. We stayed at the Quality Hotel. I highly recommend it. It might have been a series of carriage houses with a stable or something similar. While it is now a conference center we lucked out on a very quiet night at the hotel in a very quaint town. We found dinner at the Asia Restaurant only a couple of blocks away. The restaurant had only been open for seven months, it was huge and almost empty. However, the decorations and the fish tanks were like eating in a small aquarium. It was beautiful and the food was really good too.

Day 4: Legoland
Our day started with a very nice buffet breakfast at the hotel. Our goal was to make it to the park around 10 when it opened.

The lego structures at the park were nothing short of amazing. I'll let the pictures tell most the story of our day.

These were our favorite rides, or at least our favorites of the ones in which we could carry a camera.

Throughout the park we saw many Lego animals and people. The attention to detail was astonishing.

By train and by jeep, goin' on a safari...

They also had a really nice aquarium, with of course Lego decoration for the fish, sharks and stingrays to swim around.

And there were just some fun lego people we got to know throughout the day...

We enjoyed our Legoland adventure.

That evening we returned to Henrik and Astrid's place as the next morning we caught a flight back to Spain. We had a fabulous trip and apparently got out just in time. Later that day the Denmark airport closed due to the volcanic ash from Iceland that floated south.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In Search of the Danish Danish...

Day 2: In search of the Danish.

We took the train into Copenhagen followed by an automatic metro. Automatic as there was no driver so it was similar to the terminal transport systems found in many large US airports. For a driverless metro it appeared to have a pretty extensive track system. It must be run with the same iRobot engine used for the Roomba.

Once there, we crossed a large town square, Kongens Nytorv, where we saw the guards marching. At noon everyday there is a changing of the guards at the Queen and Prince's residence, Amaliehaven. We happened to catch the guards marching to their barracks as their shift had ended. We were quite lucky with timing throughout the day as we were often in the right place at the right time for sights that most tourists don't actually catch.

The architecture intermixed with the canals and boats was stunning. We enjoyed a walk along the canal as we waited for our turn on a boat tour of the area.

Astrid and Henrik were our guides once we hit the water. Our cruise took us by many important locations near the water including the Operaen, the little Mermaid statue (although our backside view didn't look like much), the Trekroner Søfort which guards the entrance to Copenhagen, and the cruise ship harbor. Along the way we happened to see a person bungee jump over the water. In addition, we saw the royal ship out in the harbor with the Prince on board. It is very unusual to catch that. We decided to disembark at Amaliehaven, (Amalie Garden) where there was a beautiful fountain. The sight line connecting the Operaen across the water, through the fountain, and leading to the center square of the Royal Residence, Amalienborg Palace was very purposefully articulated for its beauty.

We continued our journey walking towards the Royal Residence, Amalienborg Palace. We got the typical pictures of the guards at the doors but we also happened to catch a wedding procession on bike taxi.

Moving further down the street past the residence we headed towards a beautiful church and then back to the center of town. The mix of old architecture along with modernly furnished interiors is quite interesting to catch.
We continued on towards Christianshavns. Along the way Henrik pointed out the  Danish Parliament, also known as the Christiansborg Palace which is attached to his office building, the oldest office building in Europe still in use. The Danish Parliament building does have quite an interesting history.

After grabbing some lunch to picnic along the canal, we continued our walk through Christianshavn to Vor Frelsers Kirke known for its spiral staircase on the outside of the building. We arrived as they were closing but they let us in as long as we didn't take too much time. Maia, Henrik, Astrid and I decided to go to the top first and take other pictures on the way down. Morgan and Dean waited below. The first part of the journey was on the inside and my understanding is that there are some 400 stairs total to the top. As we approached the top, the climb continued on the outer staircase which eventually narrows down to nothing. Maia squeezed herself in at the very end of the staircase. The views of the city from there were outstanding.  Once we finished taking pictures we headed down. The old clock mechanism was in an enclosed room and is currently not working but they plan to restore it. I was lucky enough to be taking a picture through the glass on my way down (the others were ahead of me), when the man who takes care of things opened the door allowing me and a couple of others to take some inside shots. He also gave us a bit of history on the church.

Day two was coming to an end and still no danishes. The sites were beautiful but it was time to go in search specifically for those flaky pastries. On our walk to the metro that would take us back to Klampenborg, we discovered the Lagkagehuset, or layer cake house. The bakery was named after the looks of the outside of the building. We thought that sounded promising and sure enough, there they were. 

It was a really cool place as the windows opened up completely for an open air feel on the corner of the canal. We were able to see a floating bar/cafe across the water.

So, yes we can find danish in Denmark, but did they originate here? I decided it was time to consult wikipedia... Check out the history section on the Danish.

We finished off our day at Henrik's place for a very tasty grilled meal. We do miss grilled food.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is the Danish Really from Denmark?

We had a burning question and decided the only way to find out was to see for ourselves. So we packed up the kids and took a few days off to visit Denmark. Our flight through Brussels confirmed the fact that Belgium is known for beer and chocolate as at least 50% of items for sale at the airport were one or the other. (I suspect those two words just got the close attention of at least 50% of our readers as well.)

We flew to Copenhagen where we met up with Henrik and Astrid. Some of you may remember Henrik as he lived with us in Madison in 2007 while getting started on his masters program at UW. He also joined us for Thanksgiving in Missouri that year. And as you know, if you take someone home for the holidays, they become part of the family. Astrid, his fiance, we met last summer when they visited and we are excited to welcome her into the family as well.

Our first day we visited the Experimentarium. We were lucky enough to catch the Body Worlds exhibit which was incredible as always. I'm glad the girls got to see it and we talked about about the science of our bodies and what incredible machines they are. I especially like the posed athletic position forms. There were some interactive stations which asked questions and then you had to stamp your hand to find out the answer. Morgan seemed to enjoy the hand stamping. Maia was a bit more curious about how the body works and remembered some of her science from Thoreau where she learned about the number of bones in your hands. I had seen the exhibit in Milwaukee but there were some parts that were different here than there.

In addition to Body Worlds there were many other really amazing hands-on activities with water flow, bubbles, energy, senses... There were several biking power demonstrations. In the one pictured it was measuring your power output and based on that filling a small cup with some green Gatorade-like drink. It was a really nice museum. From there we found a place for lunch. It was a quirky little Italian place that served everything from pizza (Maia) to bagels with cream cheese (Morgan) and the two guys that worked there were more likely Turkish than Italian. Most importantly the food was great and nothing beats a good bagel, a food not found in Spain. Well, perhaps Belgium beer and chocolate. Feel free to place your vote in the comments area.

As if that wasn't enough food, the girls and Dean got big-as-your-head ice cream cones which they ate standing by the ocean. It was quite breezy so we didn't last long in the cool wind. We did see some Danes with very thick skin jump in the water, come out shivering and then jump back in again. I guess it is their version of the almost Polar Plunge. We hit a park briefly before heading to Henrik's parents house for dinner. They have a beautiful private home with a lovely garden. It has been a long time since we have seen that much privately owned grass. The company was outstanding, the food was excellent, and it appears Danish beer will give Belgian beer a run for its money.
DAY 1: Still no sign of Danishes...

Friday, May 20, 2011

This & That-Here & There

The past few weekends we have stayed closer to home but been busy nonetheless. I've added a map so you can see where these places are.

Beach Surprise in Algorta
We rode our bikes down to the Ereaga beach just past the Old Port area of Algorta on Sunday May 1 to find some really amazing sand sculptures. The artist was still there putting on the finishing touches. I don't know his story but he welcomes donations from passersby and certainly deserves them considering the attention he paid to details in his work.

Culture in Arrigorriaga
On May 7 we took a train to Arrigorriaga, a small town just outside of Bilbao. They were having their XVI International Clown Festival. We actually didn't see any clowns but we did catch an impressive marionette act, the Grannies from Austria who were 4 men dressed in drag as old hags. They were pretty funny as they took the observers on a tour including scaling a building (losing underwear in the process), "stealing" a bike and a car, along with other shenanigans. Dean and I agree that much of what they did would probably not be acceptable as a public family show in the US. Following that was the acrobatic team Circo Claxon in the pictures. They were quite impressive.

Hanging Out with Friends in Mundaka & Gernika
On Sunday we headed to Mundaka to visit Marina and her family. Marina lived in Madison last year attending High School at La Follette. We took the metro to Bilbao and then hopped on a slow train in the direction of Mundaka. It was an older train that reminded me of RENFE circa 1980's. The scenery was quite beautiful along the way. We got off in San Cristobal where we met up with Marina and her family. From there we started our hike to Mundaka. Not far into our journey we found the Torre Madariaga and museum of biodiversity. We learned about biodiversity in the world, and the birds and wildlife native to the Basque region. One of the coolest rooms was the animal photo room pictured below.

At the top of the tower there were telescopes where we could get a close up of the surrounding terrain. I believe the purpose was for bird watching but they must have all been napping as we didn't see any birds in the hills.

We continued our journey along the water as we approached Mundaka. Mundaka is a beautiful small town on the ocean. While there are people that live there full time it is a hotspot for tourism in the summer months. They are known for their great surfing. Pictured below is a white building on the beach. That's where Marina lives with her parents and her sister. We stopped there for lunch. They had balconies off of each of the rooms. Too small for patio furniture but nice to stand on and get some fresh air. What a great flat and location. I can imagine how relaxing it would be to come home from work and have views like that. The beach is in a cove-like area so the water is relatively warm there. After lunch we took a bit of a tour around the town. On the edge of the ocean was a chapel. The girls found a horse that took a liking to them, or at least to the attention they were giving it.

From Mundaka we grabbed the train heading back in the direction of Bilbao but stopping off in Gernika. Gernika was bombed by the Germans in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War and pretty much decimated. Hitler's airstrike was in solidarity with Franco's work to overthrow the Basque government. One surviving item is the oak tree. In years prior to the war, the Basque Assembly would gather under the oak tree to discuss issues of the region. The oak tree died of old age but the trunk has been preserved. Around the corner is another oak tree, an offspring, as its replacement. The tree of Gernika symbolizes the freedom of the Basque people and serves as a reminder of the past. Oak trees in this area are considered sacred and may not be removed. Pablo Picasso painted numerous pictures telling the story of the atrocities of the war and the bombing in this city. At this point, most everything in Gernika is new as the town had to be completely rebuilt after the war.

On the Run in San Sebastian
On the 14th we headed to San Sebastian. Dean was primed and ready for the half marathon on the 15th. We had a slow moving day on the 14th and just wandered around San Sebastian a bit to get oriented as to where we needed to be for the race on the 15th. San Sebastian is known for its tapas/pinxtos which are small appetizers you get in the bars and cafes. We've made meals out of that more than once. That evening we caught a really nice kid-oriented theater production. The Mariantoia Oliver Company is a four person act that combines dance, acrobatics and clowning around.

The following morning Dean ran and did quite well finishing in 1:40:49. The run was along the ocean for a large part of it so the scenery was nice and he felt the race was very well organized.

Taking a break in Hondarribia
Following the race we took a trip along the coast to Hondarribia, a small quaint town on the eastern border of Spain. It was an important shipping area for exports but is increasingly host to lots of tourism and has a port full of private yachts. The kids wrapped up their weekend on the beach playing in the sand and water a bit until they were just too cold with the wind. I took a stroll through town to get a flavor for life on the border of France.