Bon Viatge!

Meg and Grant go to Barcelona & beyond

Author: bonviatgemarvins (Page 1 of 5)

Adéu

The time for us to take leave of Barcelona has come. I will miss Barcelona, especially: patatas bravas, cheap beer & wine, sunshine all year round, the €10 3-course lunch menus, the whole of the Gracia neighborhood, speaking Spanish on a regular basis, being able to sit at a restaurant for hours without getting kicked out, fresh produce in dozens of stores walking distance away, the well-connected Spanish train system, the randomly-specific small shops, and the general laid-backness of the Spanish culture.

Among all my emotions, the overriding one right now is gratitude. I’m so thankful for all the adventures of the last year. I’m thankful for the expansive landscapes I saw that made me feel small, and the small moments with strangers that made me feel significant. I’m thankful for the old friends who I got to share new adventures with, and the new friends who showed me what living out your dream looks like. I’m thankful to have reached new depths in my relationship to Grant, and new heights in my relationship with myself.

And more than anything, I’m thankful that this is not an end. It’s just a new door to walk through. I’m carrying this love and gratitude with me.

Here’s a photo-slideshow toast to some of my favorite memories of the last year. ¡Salud!

¡Adéu, Barça!

The best of…

As our year in Europe wounds down, we took a moment to reflect on things we would recommend to others. Here’s our best-of list!

Best by destination type

Up-and-coming: Lisbon, Portugal

Romantic get-a-way: Bruges, Belgium

Friendliest people: tie Edinburgh, Scotland and Lisbon, Portugal

Budget-friendly: Budapest, Hungary (the currency exchange will test your math abilities, though!)


Best by activity/site

Hike: Chocolate-cheese trail from Broc to Gruyeres (official site and blog)

Food tour: tie Lisbon’s Eat Portugal food tours (site) and Les Pastras truffle hunting in Provence, France (site)

Multi-day tour: Top Desert trip to the Merzouga Dunes in Morocco (site)

Festival: tie Munich’s Oktoberfest and Valencia’s Las Fallas

Market: tie Marrakech, Morocco souks and Portobello Rd Market in London

Street art: Bristol, UK

Park: Gulliver’s Park in the Turia Riverbed in Valencia, Spain (site)

Bike ride: Bruges, Belgium to Damme along the canal (best in Fall)

Hotel: tie Hotel Iglú in Andorra (site) and the Red Rock’s House in Miravet (site)

Castle: tie Carcassonne, France (site) and Pena National Palace in Sintra, Portugal (site)

Bridge: Puento Nuevo in Ronda, Spain (site)

Lake: Lake Como, Italy

Pastry: Nata (Portugal) (eclairs from Fauchon in Paris were a close second)


Best of Barcelona

Lunch: Amelie on the Placa de Vila de Gracia square (site)

Dinner: La Pubilla (site)

Brunch: Flax and Kale (site)

Patatas bravas: Elsa y Fred (site)

Sangria: Casa Lolea (site)

Cava: Can Paixano (site)

Cocktails: La Confitería (site)

Festival: Festa Major de Gracia (site)

Viewpoint: Bunkers of Carmel (site)

Rooftop bar: Majestic Hotel

Beach: Montgat Beach (don’t forget to check out the inflatable water park there – site)

Underrated architecture site: Sant Pau Hospital (site)

Concert venue: Check the La Pedrera website for rooftop concerts offered in the summertime or Classictic for classical concerts in old gothic churches around the city

Neighborhood: Vila de Gracia (metro stop Fontana, walk down Calle Verdi) [also Sarria is a good choice, walk down Carrer Major de Sarria)]

Souvenir shop: Inside College of Architects of Catalonia (site)

Day trip: tie Montserrat and Girona

Medieval village in Catalonia: tie Besalu and Castellfollit de la Roca

Dish to try: Galician Style Octopus

Door photos

Excerpt from “Doors opening, closing on us” by Marge Piercy:

Maybe there is more of the magical
in the idea of a door than in the door
itself. It’s always a matter of going
through into something else. But

while some doors lead to cathedrals
arching up overhead like stormy skies
and some to sumptuous auditoriums
and some to caves of nuclear monsters

most just yield a bathroom or a closet.
Still, the image of a door is liminal…

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Hiya, you alright?

…that’s the greeting we got throughout the UK, and the phrase we got to hear Grant parrot in his British accent. As it turns out, this is a thing: Reddit discussion

We were so excited to meet Grant’s parents, Susan and Dean, for a whirlwind tour around the UK! It had been so long since we had seen them, that it was great to catch up in person AND make new memories. I consider myself very blessed to have them as my in-law’s, as they have always made me feel welcome and a part of the family since the first time I met them.

They also got to visit with us at a unique time: when we were making plans (or deftly avoiding making plans) for the future. We had the delight of celebrating both Susan’s and my birthday during the trip. I couldn’t have asked for a better taste of the UK (although it left me wanting to see more of Scotland!).

Bath

Our first stop on the itinerary was Bath. My favorite photo from the entire trip is the first group photo we took together at the Fashion Museum in Bath:

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^The men look quite dashing, although I doubt I’ll be shopping for a bonnet anytime soon.

The first few days we took a tower tour of the cathedral, toured the Roman Baths, and did a free walking tour around the city.

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^The competition for the best instagram shot was fierce among this crowd!

Day trip to Stonehenge, Avebury Circle, and the Cotswolds

Susan arranged a wonderful guided tour that showed us an interesting part of the countryside around Bath. What stuck with me the most from the tour was thatched roofs. I know that sounds funny, but there are these elaborate, beautiful thatched-roof houses in the small towns along the way. Each “thatcher” has a signature animal on top of the roof to advertise his services. I had no idea that the protection of these homes and their historic art was so strict.

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We walked around Stonehenge and Avebury Circle (another prehistoric stone circle where you can actually touch the stones). Susan and I were disappointed to learn that the stones had been touched and re-arranged to reflect the position in which they were found. There are a lot of stones missing, and a projection of what Stonehenge would be like with all of them made it seem like that would be a totally different experience.

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Bristol

We stopped by Bristol for one night at my request. I had read from blogs about some really cool street art and funky shopping. Bristol totally lived up to my expectations! We did a little shopping (where I got a birthday treat for myself), ate pretty darn good burritos in a bus truck (take that, food trucks!), saw some crazy street art, and went to a shop where they create funky/modern designs on surplus china.

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York

Then we were off to cute York! I really enjoyed the size of York, and I thought the architecture of some of the old streets was really cute.

Our first night we attended Evensong at York Minster. Evensong was just absolutely beautiful. The sermon was actually very relevant, too. I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to see how similar the Anglican service was to a Catholic service (there were some “God save the queen” ‘s thrown in there though).

In a complete change of pace, we went on a ghost tour that evening, too. Our tour guide was quite quirky (as you might expect). It gave us a good overview of the history of York, though.

The next morning we did a walking tour that took us along the old city walls.

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Grant was chomping at the bit to go to the National Rail Museum, so we spent the afternoon there. The coolest part was seeing the old train cars for royalty! I never thought I’d see a bathtub in a train car.

That evening, we went to check out this event recommended to us by our B&B owner. Apparently, the York Philharmonic Men’s Choir practices on Monday nights and then goes to a local bar to socialize and sing a bit more. As soon as Susan, Dean, and I stepped in the door to the bar, we were surrounded by the choir. One member was very friendly to us and introduced us to the family of another member, who we sat with. One of the oldest men (and the guy who seemed to be the ringleader) kept singing in Susan’s and mine direction especially and acting out a bit. They even sang some American tunes because we were their “special guests.” I’ve never felt so special and welcome in my life! It was truly inspiring to see the community these men had formed over generations, and to see these people pursuing their passion so vehemently.

Edinburgh

Northern still we headed! Since we had about half a day in Edinburgh, we all downloaded the Rick Steve (or Ricky Steve as Grant calls him) walking tour down the Royal Mile. That gave us a crash course of the sites.

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As it was Susan’s birthday, we found a Mexican restaurant (with fajitas!). I think Grant and I were much more impressed by the Mexican food than Susan and Dean (we’ve been deprived for too long!). Grant joked that we should order haggis fajitas.

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We explored the Edinburgh Castle in much more detail the next day and got to re-visit places on the Royal Mile that we wanted to explore in more detail.

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We stayed at the castle until 1pm, when the huge cannon you see above fired a shot. It originally fired a shot so everyone could calibrate the time, but they’ve kept up the tradition.

IMG_1984Then we headed on to do some light shopping. We stopped in at a kilt shop, where the owner looked up the Marvin tartan for us and also showed us a Texas tartan (I had never seen that before!). I was surprised by how friendly people were in Edinburgh, and I really liked the size of the town.

 

 

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Last, all four of us did whisky tasting together. I must say, I don’t usually like whisky, but this stuff was pretty good! We had a whisky connoisseur talk us through the various regions and different types of whiskies.

 

 

 

We got to see a folk music band play that evening in this small, intimate bar. The band was really amazing, and I felt my mind just drifting away in the nostalgic tunes of the violin, guitar, and piano.

Our last day in Edinburgh, we split up. Susan and Dean went North to St. Andrews, and Grant and I stuck around Edinburgh, where we went to Arthur’s Seat at Holyrood Park. Such beautiful views for a park right inside the city!

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London

Our last stop on the UK tour was London! It was such a contrast from Edinburgh to get off the train in London to a hustlin’ bustlin’ crowd. I was excited this trip to discover different parts of London than just the main sites. We stayed in South Kensington, with its symmetrical streets lined with white houses. It was quite stunning, even on the overcast days!

Our first evening in London, we completed a WWII-themed escape game! See the photo at the top of this blog post (a close second as favorite photo of this trip). We worked as a team and solved the puzzles to get out just in the nick of time!

IMG_2104The next day in London was my birthday. Grant was just the sweetest, making sure to spoil me. We walked around colorful Portobello Road in Notting Hill, grazing on bubble tea and hot cross buns.

Susan and Dean also spoiled me by treating us to dinner and Kinky Boots the musical that evening! I felt very loved. Also, Kinky Boots was really hilarious. I was in tears of laughter during one of the songs (Ohhhh Charliiieeeee…)

 

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^Luckily, we made dinner and show after meeting at two different locations of the same restaurant. Whoops, that one was on me!

IMG_2143We got to explore the Tower of London and the Imperial War Museum together the next day. Not the lightest subjects! But well-done sites all the same.

 

 

 

IMG_3992That was the evening of fish-opalypse. I ordered the “small” portion of a seafood sampler and you can see just how “small” that was. Uhhh, challenge accepted?

 

 

 

 

On our last day in London, Grant and I explored Shoreditch (the hipster neighborhood in London). Then all of us met for high tea in the afternoon. High tea was quite the experience with huge towers of scones and fancy diningware. I was so excited to enjoy tea together and felt very English!

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We were sad to say goodbye to Susan and Dean for the time being, but mostly we were so grateful we got to share this experience with them! We love you, Susan and Dean!

We’ll always have the iglú

Grant’s good friend Stephen Demjanenko recently visited us in Barcelona. They worked together at Meraki, rock climbed, and spent endless night in DOTA (computer game) tournaments. Once, I went to sleep and woke up before Grant had gone to sleep. True story. I blame Steve and DOTA for that!

Barcelona

The first order of business was to walk around our neighborhood, Gracia, enjoy the wonderful €10 four-course lunch menu, and make copious dinner reservations at restaurants Grant and I have been wanting to try. We headed to Park Guell to enjoy the crazy amounts of sunshine Barcelona is still getting.

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We learned from Megan’s visit that sunset in Park Guell is one of the best views and peaceful experiences, so we had to experience that again.

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We capped off the first day with a delicious dinner at Santa Gula, a restaurant that’s been haunting my instagram feed for months. Between that and La Pubilla, two tiny but delicious and local restaurants, we ate well the first few days in Barcelona.

One of the highlights of our time in Barcelona was exploring the neighborhood of Horta, which is definitely off the beaten path. It’s been on my list to explore for a while now. First we headed to the Labyrinth Garden, where Grant and Steve raced through.

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It was so fun to play around the park. We might have had a mini photo-shoot….

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We strolled through the Horta neighborhood, stopping on the way for important landmarks, such as this huge match, and this caterpillar train. So much caterpillar train!

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Then we hoofed it up to what is considered the best viewpoint over Barcelona – the Bunkers of Carmel. You can literally sit on the edge of this old crumbling bunker and look out over the whole city. It makes Montjuic look like a tiny bump, instead of the huge hill that it is.

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Sitges

Sitges is a seaside town 30 minutes by train from Barcelona. It also happens to have one of the best Carnaval parties and parades in Europe! We hit up our local dollar store shop for some costumes (people dress up here like for Halloween). I think we did a fantastic job combining all the randomness….

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…ok, I look a little weird. But I was obsessed with my wings:

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IMG_1175In true Spanish style, the actual parade we came to see did not start on time. This wouldn’t really have been a problem with the buzz of energy in the air, except it was also freaking cold. We moved along the parade route, looking for a warm spot. Finally, we made the best decision to duck into a restaurant along the parade route and ate warm pizza while sipping red wine. When the parade finally came by (two hours late), we went out in shifts to watch the excitement before ducking back into the warmth.

 

I don’t know how all those dancers on the floats were surviving in the cold!

Andorra

IMG_1230From the sea, to the mountains! The guys really wanted to do winter sports, so we headed up to one of the best winter resorts we’ve heard of, which happened to be in Andorra. When I finally looked at a map, I realized that Andorra is its own separate country. It’s a tiny landlocked country in the mountains between Spain and France. The official language is Catalan, and it seems very culturally similar to Catalonia. We took a three-hour bus ride from Barcelona, and we basically just drove into the country without much customs/immigration.

Grant told me there was an igloo hotel in Andorra, and I latched onto the idea. So our first night in Andorra, we had the really unique opportunity to stay in an IGLOO!

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12705500_10102882266197388_3719873246396106358_nWe took a snowcat up the mountain to the igloo hotel (my first time in a snowcat!). It so happened that we were the only other people staying there that night. A little background about the igloo hotel…it is built every winter season. It had electricity in it, working and heated bathrooms, and most fantastic of all, a hot tub! Each guest room was a block of ice covered in furs with sleeping bags on top. You would think it would be cold, but we were in our ski clothes most of the time, and we were perfectly comfortable. Each room also had its own theme, and there were unique ice carvings in each one. We got really lucky, because there had been a wedding in the igloo in the past month, and there were extra carvings and decorations in the common areas.

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It was a definite “glamping” (glamour camping) experience. The hotel owners made dinner and breakfast for us, and they started the hot tub up for us so we just totally relaxed. We did a small snowshoeing excursion from the igloo up to the top of this range. The sights were beautiful; nature was beautiful. This stay was definitely a highlight of our adventures!

Unfortunately for me, this was the end of my Andorra adventures. This is where the saying “we’ll always have the iglú” started. I became very ill the next day and remained holed up in bed for the rest of the week with a bad cold. The guys did get a chance to do downhill skiing and a thermal spa day, and they took great care of me in between.

Thank you, Steve, for coming to visit! We had a great time checking off things on our list with you!

 

The Donkey Ranch together in Spain

Ashley Teel came to visit! Funny enough, I think she is the only person to have lived with both me and Grant at some point. She was my roommate all four years of college, and the last year that I wasn’t at A&M, Grant and she lived in the same house.

In college, we called the house we lived in the “Donkey Ranch”, since it used to indeed be a ranch for donkeys. Texas for the win! It was so good to have time to visit with Ashley and catch up. When we are together, it’s like no time has passed. She is one of those friends that I always know I can count on to listen when I need to talk, and laugh with me when I need to have fun. Let’s take a trip down memory lane for a hot minute…

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Oh, college.

It was wonderful to have Ashley here, even though she got sick during her stay 🙁 She was a trooper and kept going! It must be the secret power of the patata brava sauce…or, just the crazy-strong over-the-counter Spanish drugs.

Barcelona

I scheduled a lunch/dinner party starting about 1 hour after Ashley landed in Barcelona from a trans-Atlantic flight. I know, I’m a super-nice friend. As I told Ashley, I was going to take advantage of having her here as an excuse to do all the cool things we never do in Barcelona.

We headed over to the dinner party, which was a “Calçotada.” Giant green onions, called “calçots” are in season in Catalonia now, and there is a tradition of grilling out with them. The Spanish love to celebrate, and I’m not about to complain. Upon our arrival, we were handed bibs, our first hint of what was to come. There was a fire going with tons of the calçots wrapped up in newspaper. As the first batch of calçots were delivered to the table, the hostess demonstrated to us how we were to eat the calçots. Basically, hold the bulbous end and pull, and the theory was that the charred outside part would slide off of the juicy green onion inside. Next, dip the yummy green onion in the romesco sauce – the most delicious part of the whole experience – and eat it! It reminded me a bit of a crawfish boil – messy, but delicious!

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We forced Ashley to eat copious amounts of the only green vegetable we would see for days, and then we all konked out napping.

The next day, Ashley and I headed out for some girls time to Barcelona’s Old City. We walked the aisles of the Boqueria, oogling the delicacies and got some solid fresh juice and cone of ham and cheese.

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We wandered through the rambling streets of the Gothic Quarter, stopping at the Cathedral and eventually my favorite sangria snack place for a rest.

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You wouldn’t know it was January by the great weather!! We had some time to kill before a guitar concert that evening, so we did what all sensible people would do – talked over drinks!

IMG_0571Moriah, our other college roommate, had recommended a bar to me in Barcelona, so we decided to check that out. It had the most amazing cava for such a cheap price! Everyone was drinking the rosat cava, so we tried that and really liked it. I ended up buying a bottle to take home for €2.80! Delicious cava, people! We also got to check out a “fairy” themed bar I had heard about. All in all, success!

 

We capped Ashley’s second day in Barcelona off with a guitar duo performance in a chapel of one of the old gothic cathedrals in Barcelona. The women performers were so strong and confident, and the setting was pretty unreal. The women’s fingers know all the strings and contours of the guitar to pluck it just right to make the right sound at the right time. I have as much fun watching their fingers as I do their faces as they enjoy and feel the music.

Day 3 was when Ashley’s sickness unfortunately set in. However, we got to explore all around Sagrada Familia together first. She even completed the towers, people!

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Luckily for us, the pharmacy practically threw antibiotics at us after hearing Ashley cough, so we got her some rest and meds. Again, I used this as an excuse to make a movie night of a movie I’ve been wanting to see – Chef. We all relaxed and laughed along with the movie (highly recommended!).

Valencia

We headed South on the train along the coast towards Valencia on Wednesday morning. Upon our arrival, we decided to walk around the Old City and get our bearings. We ended up exploring one of the old city gates, which had great views of the city.

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IMG_0652Valencia is covered in orange trees, much like Sevilla is. Valencia’s famous drink, called Agua de Valencia, is actually champagne and orange juice – yum!

 

 

 

 

We walked around the Cathedral in Valencia and of course had to tackle the tower. We made it up to the top just in time for sunset!

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The Cathedral also claims it houses the original Holy Grail – the chalice which Jesus used during the Last Supper. There is a whole separate chapel where you can see the chalice (albeit, from a great distance).

Valencia is a very manageable size, which makes it easy to walk around. We found some interesting street art (or as our Australian mate from the train called it, “graffiti”) along the way. This certain ninja kept popping up all over the place, so I had to get my photo with him!

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The next day our priority was to hit up the market, the old silk market building, and the Turia Riverbed park, which is a huge green belt that encircles the old city. In fact, a river used to literally go through there, until it was moved due to massive flooding. (I know, right, like, “let’s just move a river!”)

The central market in Valencia was GORGEOUS. Light-filled, airy, and crammed in with bright, shiny produce, Ashley and I wandered around wide-eyed for a while. I had to try the Valencian version of horchata, which tasted more like plain almond milk than anything else!

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Full, we headed towards the Turia riverbed! The first cool thing we came across there was a children’s park. It looked like a huge structure, and there were these amazingly-wide slides that children were screeching down. It took me a while to realize that we were looking at a giant man splayed out on the ground. I saw the giant hand first. Do you see it?

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In fact, the park itself is Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels! It’s the scene when Gulliver is tied down by the Lilliputians. Here is the park from satellite view:

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Isn’t it amazing? I was just thrilled! I didn’t push any kids aside to play or anything, but I did climb on it a bit. The design was just genius – every part of his body was somehow either a stair or a slide.

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Continuing our day of amazing architecture and design, we went to the Ciudad de las sciencias y las artes. It is a complex of futuristic, space-looking buildings that serve individually as a science museum, a theater, a water park, and a general convention center. They are curvey, shimmering buildings that seem to somehow always be emerging from the teal water that surrounds them.

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We spent the afternoon putzing around the science museum – which was surprisingly informative! We learned that Ashley has the most percentage of water in her body, I have the longest arm span, and that Grant really loves science museums 🙂

The coolest part of our visit to the museum was a “space mission” we did. We got to go through a simulation of being in space and of take-off and lift-off. It was a bit corny, but I’m not going to say that I wasn’t actually feeling some real anticipation as we climbed into our “rocket” and the countdown began.

12565583_10107657139562814_626868129441503181_nThat evening, Ashley and I ordered paella (Valencia is famous for this!) and headed to a small bar for a flamenco show! The flamenco show was different than other ones I’ve seen in the past, since it was such a small and intimate venue. The performers looked like they were having a blast the entire time. In fact, at the end, they invited one of their friends from the audience to come up to the stage to sing and dance with them.

With our last half-day in Valencia, we headed to the Bioparc. At first, we thought this was just a fancy word for the common zoo, but it turns out that the Bioparc is in fact a different type of zoo. They have designed it such that the barriers between the visitors (us) and the animals are rocks and water, not cages. The animals from different ecosystems are in the same area, instead of being separated. It made it feel like a very authentic experience, and you felt that you could get closer to the animals.

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The only point at which this was really scary is when we turned the corner and were suddenly staring two hungry hyenas in the eyes. One of them was pacing on the other side of what now looked like an impossibly small moat, and the other one was staring directly at us. A bit scary!

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Back in Barcelona, we had a good farewell dinner with the “best patatas bravas” and gelato for dessert. Again, the pharmacy hooked us up with some prescription drugs so that Ashley would be ok on her flight home. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, she got even more sick! Feel better soon, Ashley!!

We had a wonderful time re-discovering Barcelona and tromping around Valencia with you, Ashley! Thank you for sharing your vacation with us! I can’t wait for the next Donkey Ranch Reunion (yeah, I’m looking at you Rachel and Mo!).

Off-season Southern France is the way to go

When you think about the region of Provence in France, you probably picture colorful fields of vibrant lavender and sunflowers towering gleefully over you. Although going to the region in January didn’t afford us any lavender field instagram shots (with saturation bumped up of course; lo-fi could work), we found that things were a bit slower, a bit less crowded, and the people were a bit less hurried to shoo us on to the next thing.

It was a perfect place to reunite with our friend Mo from San Francisco. When I first moved to SF, Mo was my next door neighbor. Our friendship quickly grew from “hey, aren’t you that guy who lives…?” to “let’s host Thanksgiving for everyone who’s in town!”

Marseilles

If a train leaves Barcelona at 4pm going at 120 km/hr and a train leaves Paris at 1pm going 200 km/hr, when will the trains collide? Just kidding! We did all arrive in Marseilles via train, though, which was very convenient. I had been told by someone that Marseilles was a “dirty port town.” In fact, I think all three of us had low expectations for Marseilles based on other’s impressions. However, Marseilles truly exceeded all our hopes and dreams and most importantly, delivered on a random, crazy, fun New Year’s eve.

You should all know by now that food is the way to my heart, and if a restaurant has cute decorations along with delicious food, a la “food for the stomach and the eyes”, I bounce off the wall like a pinball out of excitement. It so happens that there was one such location called “Mademoiselle Cupcake” directly down the street from where we stayed. We had breakfast there two days in a row. I have no shame that I had cupcakes for breakfast. Two days in a row. My inner kid was stoked.

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Walking around Marseilles’ Old Town, we wandered into several small shops. There seemed to be a creative revival in the city, with small shop-owners, designers, and street artists converging in the twisty streets. I was struck by how friendly everyone was – it reminded me of the people in Portugal.

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For New Year’s eve, we booked a table at a Mexican restaurant (with the promise that it was good Mexican food from an American) and bought tickets to see the 80’s band Boney M perform. Let me just say, the restaurant was trying a little too hard to fuse “Mexican” with “French”, so the result was delicious margaritas paired with dishes like “duck quesadilla”. It’s hard to describe, so I’ll let the photo do the work:

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To be fair, we all probably should have lowered our expectations from the our high Mission-favorite El Farolito taqueria. It never was a fair competition. In addition, the restaurant had a bluegrass band from the U.S. playing for entertainment. Essentially we were listening to bluegrass in a Mexican restaurant in France. It was entertaining.

Then we headed to our Boney M party. Mo knew the band because his dad had liked them at the peak of their popularity. We had played them while we were getting ready the few days before, so we would know something to sing along to. Boney M did not disappoint. Everyone at the concert knew all the words to all their songs, and everyone was dancing as you can only dance to 80’s music. My favorite snapshot of the concert was when a 12 year-old girl asked Mo to take a picture of her family – including her parents and her grandparents. I love that everyone partied together and that celebrations like this are a family affair.

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Cassis

We did a quick day trip to Cassis, which is a resort beach town just outside Marseille. Even though the sky was overcast, the brightly-painted buildings made the village cheerful.

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We bundled up together in a motorboat to see the famous calanques, which are basically these huge canyons that cut from the coast into the land like sharp bays.

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Avignon

We left our trip very open, so we decided on the fly to make Avignon our new homebase for exploring the rest of the region. Avignon’s medieval city walls snake around the old town and have been very well restored, which makes it feel like you’re entering a castle when you get there.

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In Avignon, we visited the Papal Palace, which was actively used in the 14th century at the height of Avignon’s heyday.

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We also visited the famous incomplete bridge Pont d’Avignon. The Rhone River flooded so unpredictably over the years that part of the bridge was washed away.

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Daytrip for Van Gogh, castles, and truffle hunting

The main tour I really wanted to do while I was in this region was truffle hunting. Since we needed to rent a car to do that activity (out in the rural country on someone’s farm), we decided to fit in a few more stops that required a car. First, we went to St. Remy, which is where the psychiatric hospital that Van Gogh checked himself into is located. It is still an active mental institution today, but parts of it are open to visitors to see Van Gogh’s room and the gardens where he painted.

Reading about Van Gogh’s story while standing in the place where he painted and fought for mental health and painted and fought and fought for mental health touched me very deeply. Van Gogh checked himself in, and during his tenure of a year in the institution, he painted over 142 works, including some of his most famous like Irises. His mind was tormented with mental illness, yet he found inspiration and peacefulness in nature. One quote keep re-surfacing in my head: If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now. For wheat is wheat, even if people think it is a grass in the beginning.”

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The garden, of course, was not in bloom, but I did find one tiny iris holding on for dear life in the winter cold. This made me feel Van Gogh’s isolation from the world, his struggle to be a part of society. Sadly, none of his original works that were painted here reside here. They have all been taken to various museums around the world. I couldn’t help thinking that they lose so much context being separated from this place. I thought they deserved to live here where they were created and could be understand for what they were – the creations of a man who was desperately trying to ‘right’ himself in the tumultuous sea of his life. You would never know it looking at his beautiful nature scenes.

After St Remy, we headed to Les Baux, which is a village perched on a hilltop and donned in old castle ruins. Grant was in heaven exploring the grounds, as there was no particular guided route. We all had fun climbing the castle as if it were an adult McDonald’s Playplace.

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We had to rush back to the car to make it in time for our truffle hunting. About halfway to our destination, rain started spattering our windshield. By the time we made it to the farm, the rain had let up some, but it was damp and cold. This tour was still one of my favorite parts of the trip, though. The couple who runs the truffle hunting tour have vines for wine and also for olive oil. The land was passed down from the man’s grandparents, but they only discovered the plethora of truffles in the past few years. This is like striking gold!

Ok, pause. What is a truffle? It’s a fungus that only develops under very certain conditions – including a certain amount of rainfall, temperature, and soil conditions. They develop underground at the roots of trees. It is harvested for gourmet food purposes. One truffle (about the size of a quarter of the palm of my hand) easily sells for 20-50 euros. Provence is known for having truffles.

What is truffle hunting? Truffle hunting was traditionally done with pigs, but now dogs are more commonly used. When the truffle is ready to be harvested, it gives off a very specific odor that can be detected by dogs above ground. Dog owners train their dogs to recognize and like this smell. In the end, the owner takes the dogs out to the areas where the truffles are known to develop and lets the dogs literally sniff out where the truffle is. The dogs will dig, and with the help of the owner, “harvest” a truffle. It’s really neat to watch the dogs in their process of sniffing out the “ripe” truffles.

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Ironically, the truffles themselves look like pieces of poop when they are unprepared. To give you an idea of how valuable they really are, though, we were outside for 30 minutes and collected something in the range of 200 euros worth of truffles (pictured below).

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Afterwards, we warmed up with champagne and truffle tasting, like this cheese topped with truffle and then drizzled with truffle oil. Gahhhhh.

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The most unique food made with truffles was truffle ice cream. It was creamy and delicious. There is an ice cream shop in SF that sells olive oil ice cream, and the savory/sweet combo of the truffle ice cream made me think of how the savory flavor sometimes does really well with some creaminess.

Wine tasting

We did a wine tasting day tour with the number-one rated wine tour guide in Avignon. He was very proud of his status and bragged that he had to turn down Rick Steves because he was so full with bookings.

I had never seen vineyards like the ones in this area – which were covered in cobble stones. Apparently, this results in some pretty yummy rose wine.

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A highlight of the tour was going to a winery that makes small batches of wine just as the Romans once did. The winery owner found old Roman clay pots while tilling land and decided to pay tribute by replicating the Roman wine-making process. It was really cool to see how he had researched all the different methods and processes and replicated the equipment to match. I have to admit that the taste wasn’t my favorite (tasted more like Moscatel to me, but more bitter), but it was really cool to see “history in action”. It kind of reminded me of the “living colonial farms” I visited as a kid.

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We made a pitstop at the Pont du Gard to check out one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Europe, it’s that Italy isn’t the only place to see Roman ruins!

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Aix-en-Provence

Our last stop before parting ways was Aix-en-Provence, a university town, which to us seemed like a cleaner, more put-together version of Marseilles. We enjoyed eating some really good French home cooking at Fanny’s (crucial) and shopping around at fancy European stores.

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One of the coolest places we stopped by was an old gothic church converted into a modern art museum. I had ADD trying to look at all the details of the building AND the paintings.

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We capped off our stay with one last look at the city from the rooftop of our airbnb. (Airbnb for the win!). It was hard to say goodbye, but we had such a delightful time, that it’s hard to complain! Thanks, Mo, for coming to visit and sharing your vacation time with us!!

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Carcassonne on our way home

Grant and I tacked on an extra sidetrip in France on our way back to Barcelona – Carcassonne (yes, like the board game!). The castle is superbly restored and shines gloriously from the hill over the entire city.

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Again, we had fun climbing walls and exploring parts of the ruins that maybe shouldn’t have been so accessible to us (like the walls below). “Cathars”, people of a particular Christian-religious belief, once lived here before they were persecuted by the Catholic church. If you want to delve into a rather lost part of history, you should look into the Cathars!

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Grant happened to catch a really good photo of me walking out of the castle, which we immediately photoshopped into this amazing mini-comic:

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On that note (which hopefully made you smile!), I’ll sign off.

Do people still say ‘sign off’?

Bon Nadal!

Bon Nadal means “Merry Christmas” in Catalan. This was Grant and I’s first Christmas away from our families, and our first Christmas celebrating another culture’s traditions more than our own. Although we did get a kick out of learning about crapping logs and other Catalan traditions, we still managed to infuse Christmas with a little bit of home for our little family of two.

Bike ride to see the holiday lights

As soon as December started, Barcelona streets were dressed in Christmas lights. By far, this is the biggest part of Christmas decoration here. There aren’t so many elaborate shop windows or gigantic trees. A group that we bike with sometimes organized a bike ride to go down a lot of the streets in the city that are lit up. It was fun to see the spirit across the city, and we felt a little bit of neighborhood pride for our tiny neighborhood that had the best light displays.

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Christmas markets

As in many European cities, there were Christmas markets set up around the city. They commonly sell nativity scenes and festive decorations for the season. Catalan Christmas markets have a few unusual offerings that you won’t find anywhere else, though.

Caga Tió literally means “pooping Uncle” and is a log with a face on it. The markets sell all sizes of this, because the tradition is that the log “grows” over time (meaning the parents have to swap out different sizes of the log). Basically, the kids “feed” the log through the month of December. On Christmas Eve, they beat the log and sing a song about beating it so that it will poop. It then “poops” out little fruits and candies for the kids. Traditionally, kids don’t get bigger presents on Christmas; rather, Three Kings’ Day, January 6, is when the kids receive gifts (from the Three Kings, not Santa).

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IMG_9588We carefully selected a tió for our house, keeping in mind my stringent requirements: cannot have a creepy face, must have a cute blanket, and must be packable to take with us when we leave.

 

 

 

 

 

TIMG_9598here are big Caga Tió’s that kids sit on for photos as well. Think “mall Santa Claus”. I got my photo with one (after shoving aside a few kids, just kidding!).

 

 

 

 

A caganer is a pooping man figurine that is put in the nativity scenes alongside Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. He is usually put in the background and supposedly represents “fertilization”. They make the caganers to be all sorts of famous people and also cartoon characters, like Sponge Bob. It’s bizarre.

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There is also a human-sized caganer in our neighborhood that represents the clocktower in the main Gracia plaza. It is a huge pooping clocktower that rolls around to different locations. Could you get more festive?

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Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve, we went to the international church for service. As soon as the first notes of “O Holy Night” rang out, it hit me that it was Christmastime, and we weren’t with our families. I started crying right then and there in church. I really took being with family in the past for the holidays for granted. Thankfully, we weren’t really without family – we had each other.

We cuddled around the Netflix fake fire channel at home as we ate a homemade “Texas-style” meal, which included two of our guilty pleasures: mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. There were also green beans, but really those were just for show.

Christmas Day

I have tried to make Christmas morning breakfasts a special thing the last two years, so this year I made cinnamon buns from scratch.

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As we sipped our mimosas and chowed down on cinnamon buns, we opened presents that Santa (Mom!) had brought us. And we didn’t even have to beat our log to get them! 

We hurried off to a lunchtime cooking class, where we learned how to make some fancy traditional Catalan dishes and then got to eat our the rewards of our labor! We went with one of our friends here in Barcelona.

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Grant made friends with a little girl who was there with her mom. It was amazing, because Grant spoke to her in English, and she spoke back to him in Russian, and somehow, magically, they could communicate! They made a snowman out of dough and folded some pretty cool origami with their napkins.

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All in all, here are the dishes we made:

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After such a huge meal, I konked out on the couch, while Grant indulged in a game of DOTA.

In the evening, we saw a live ballet performance at the Opera House of The Nutcracker. It was beautiful! It made me want to start taking ballet lessons again. The whole piece was very whimsical, and it was a great way to end Christmas Day!

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We were blessed to be able to Facetime with our families despite the distance. We didn’t get a photo with everyone, but this was a great shot with the Marvins and Dittmans!

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That’s probably as close as we’ll get to a family photo in 2015 🙂

Hope everyone has a happy new year, and we’ll see you in 2016!

A Davis family reunion touring Spain

We were so fortunate in November to be surrounded by family as we went into the holiday season. My parents came to visit Spain, and Kat and Sara met up with us as well! We missed Erin, Brin, and the kids, but it was still so wonderful to have so much of the family together.

I have missed my parents so much. Being across an ocean from them seems so much further away than even the distance between California and Texas. I was so excited to share our life in Spain with them and get in as many hugs as possible.

How do I describe how much my parents mean to me? They have given me everything – a solid start to life, continual guidance as I grew up, and a friendship as an adult. Their care and love for me overwhelms me and makes me tear up. I don’t think I say it enough, but my parents are incredible people. I love you, Mom and Dad!

As a change of pace on the blog, I have recorded our trip with a series of haikus and photos capturing the highlights of our trip.

Granada


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Thanksgiving dinner
No turkey or pumpkin pie
Just tajine couscous

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Kat is last minute
Lucky to see her so much
We love this globber

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Houston to Frankfurt
Barca, Malaga, then bus
Family together

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Alhambra Palace
Lush gardens and colored tile
Backdrop of mountains

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 Albayzin barrio
Whitewashed walls with orange rooftops
But it is uphill

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Mother and Father
Two of my favorite people
I’ll love you always

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Sisters together
I love laughing lots with you
You know my soul well

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Eggplant with honey
Crispy, sweet, unexpected
Mom’s top tapa choice

Women drink in caves
Rumor is gypsies live here
Where real talk happens

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White hill towns


 Family road trip
Just have to find the rental
To drive white hill towns

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Ronda bridge so tall
Joining village over gorge
Such a feat of stone

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Grant climbs Zahara
We sit on ledge for sunset
Golden streams of light

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Seville

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Seville riverfront
Blue water, colorful walls
Sometimes we goof off

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Placa Espanya
Surprisingly beautiful
Homage to all towns

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Mosque turned cathedral
Columbus is buried here
Or so they would claim

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Orange trees in the street
Sometimes feels like Morocco
But with better wine

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Flamenco is danced
Or rather shouted or screamed
By their fast, loud feet

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We enjoy looking
Shopping El Corte Ingles
As we exchange notes

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Real Alcazar
Grant got us in with a hack
Wandered the gardens

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Madrid


 

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Capital city
Madrid is dressed for Christmas
There are scary goats

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Outside the bullring
We have fun with photographs
Those Americans

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The Prado Museum
Awe-inspiring art for all
Wow it is so big

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Reina Sofia
Perfect for mom and daughter
So blessed for this time

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Segway tour through parks
Off roading and spiraling
That’s guy time for you

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Barcelona


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Finally Barca
Got to show off Gracia
It’s kind of hipster

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Small Italian place
Da Greco was a true treat
Chock full of pasta

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Gaudi’s masterpiece
Sagrada Familia
Such engineering

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Christmas marketplace
Bon Nadal in Catalan
Stacks of smiling logs

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Mom takes care of us
Brings us presents and decor
Like Santa was here

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Love having you here
It’s the best Christmas present
Thank God for FaceTime

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Sights & sounds from the bustling French capital to the peaceful Moroccan Sahara

When we galavanted around Europe/Africa with Megan in November, she and Grant graciously agreed to co-write the blog post from the trip. You’ll get a taste of all three of our perspectives. Additionally, Megan had this great idea to make sound recordings of different locations we visited. They capture so much more than photos can and will transport you to the places we visited.

We were so excited to travel with Megan through Paris, Barcelona, and Morocco! We were honored that she chose to spend her vacation with us! I am so thankful that God gave me a third sister in her. Without further ado…

Chapter I: Paris (by Meg)

Grant and I took the train from Brussels to Paris to meet up with Megan. Megan had selected a cute attic apartment on airbnb for all of us to stay in. It was so surreal to knock on the door of this corner apartment and for Megan to open the door to greet us. It wasn’t a big jump to imagine that she could live there! We spent the first day walking in Le Marais and along the Seine. On our way, we ducked into the Musee de la chase et de la nature (The Museum of Hunting and Nature), which provided us with lots of laughs. Forget IKEA, I know where I’ll be shopping for future home decor…

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As we were strolling the Parisian streets, I kept saying, “Guys, we are all in Paris right now!” It felt surprisingly normal to be in Paris in the Fall, with Grant and Megan.

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We were searching for a savory French restaurant for our first dinner in Paris. Unfortunately, we had not counted on places being so crowded on a Saturday night! All the highly-rated TripAdvisor restaurants were full. We were about to commit to just eat Thai food. Then, Grant exclaimed that he had found a French food place called “Chez Chen”. Out of hunger, Megan and I blindly followed Grant. Our hunger curdled to suspicion as we turned the corner to be greeted by the mini “Chinatown” of Paris lit with neon Chinese food signs. As it turns out, “Chez Chen” is a bonafide Chinese food restaurant. Nothing French here. “Chez” in a restaurant title does not necessarily mean the place serves French food, go figure! We had a good laugh at ourselves as we joked about ordering “Chez Chen’s schezwan chicken”.

The next morning, we headed to the Sacré Cœur Basilica. It is perched on a hill overlooking Paris. As we do, we climbed to the topmost point to get the panoramic views of the city. The ghost of the Eiffel Tower even lingered on the horizon.

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Did I mention that a theme of our trip was beautiful sunsets? The night before we had watched the sun turn the Seine into a golden and rose-colored mirror. This evening, we explored the Parc de Butte Chemante and watched as everyone clung to the last minutes of daylight in the park. Megan had studied this park and filled us in on what made it unique. We wandered the many dimensions and layers of this city park, an oasis of wild in a city of ordered chaos. The fall colors decorated the green pathways. We found a spot of grass to sit and watch the sun go down on our second day in Paris.

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At the edge of the park, there is an old country house that is a bar and restaurant. I got dejavu that I was in Austin or something, as we sipped on beers with Christmas lights twinkling from the eaves of this white pueblo. It did not nearly feel cold enough for November in Paris!

On our last day in France, we rented bikes and took the train out of the city to Fountainebleu to visit the beautiful countryside and grandeur of the chateau there. We cruised on the bike path through the forest nestled in between the villages, breathing in the crisp air en route to Barbizon. It is not hard to understand why artists came to Barbizon to paint and work – the forest opens to a small cobbled street that winds between modest, ivy-covered houses. I felt like I was inside the small village in the movie Beauty and the Beast (Bonjour!).

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We followed the bike path back to Fountainebleu to spend our last hour of our day trip exploring the enormous royal chateau of Fontainebleau. I was struck by the enormity of the complex as we rode around its perimeter. The whole building was so grand and the grounds so extensive. Apparently, Fontainebleau is even larger than Versailles, but it is less visited.

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I really enjoyed seeing the countryside outside of Paris. At the train station, as we awaited the train to carry us back to Paris, Megan and Grant came up with a game to fist bump and “joust” on bikes. What is it they say about siblings? Something about being cut from the same cloth?

The next adventure awaited us in Barcelona…

Chapter II: Barcelona Part I (by Megan)

I had very few expectations for Barcelona, but it captivated me at first sight; not difficult considering the sweeping aerial view I was treated to from my window seat as the plane descended along the coastline. There were even dolphins swimming in the water below! It was one song and dance away from being a Disney movie intro.

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I was excited to see Grant and Meg’s “home” turf. As they led me to their apartment in Gracia, they explained some key parts of Spanish culture. First, I had to master the Spanish stroll, which as it turns out, is significantly slower than New York pace. I kept darting ahead only to realize I was the only one who didn’t know where we were going. Pedestrians dominated the narrow “vias” of Gracia and would only move for the occasional motorbike. People of all generations would congregate in the placas sprinkled throughout the neighborhood. In effect, there was a lively hum distinct to this intimate community with an appetite for the fullness of life. Speaking of appetite, Grant and Meg got me hooked on the lunch specials: two courses plus bread, dessert, and a glass of wine for 10 euro!! I could get used to that…

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Next we went to Park Guell, an eclectic hillside park designed by Gaudi. The impressive thing about this place is the whimsy and adventurous spirit that it encompasses. We hiked all the way up to the top where we could see across Barcelona to the ocean. We overheard (OK, Meg overheard and translated) an adorable little boy ask his mother where the sky was. It was the same color as the ocean so it was indistinguishable except for being dotted with boats. Then we watched a sunset so beautiful that you couldn’t help but notice the sky.

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Guell_Viaduct

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Grant took me to the Sagrada Familia where I nerded out on complex geometry. He was a trooper while I spent hours in the museum studying the plaster models, catenary curves made with sandbags and cable, and diagrams of the cross-sections of the columns. Above all, the cathedral was an example of how good things take time to build, but the result can be timeless.

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Now no trip to Spain is complete without some sangria and Meg has found the good stuff. We had a girl’s night along with her South African friend Bex at Casa Lolea where we gushed all night at the polka dot branding, tried to barter with the server for some of the décor, and debated which of the four sparkling flavors was the best. To top it off, I located the only store in NYC that carries the brand! Consider me enabled.

 

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After a few days in Barcelona, we took the train to the coastal village of Tarragona known for its well-preserved Roman ruins. We had a private guide show us around and he seemed to know everything and everyone… even the organist at the cathedral. I was most riveted with the fact that the roads and buildings of an entire civilization could be so casually erased. Towards the end of the tour we all became perilously hangry, so that’s about all I remember…

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Then we were off to Morocco!

Chapter III: Morocco (by Grant)

For the first 20 minutes, I was on edge. Having heard mixed things (“it’s beautiful, you’ll love it” and “it’s dangerous, you’ll get kidnapped”) I was curious to see which was more true. As a driver took us from the airport, I tracked our progress on Google maps to ensure we weren’t being taken to the seedy underbelly of Marrakesh. Google carelessly forgot to color-code the seedy bits though, so it didn’t do much good.

IMG_2430Once we arrived at our riad, things got better. Moroccan riads have all the rooms laid out around a small central courtyard with a fountain, shade from the sun, and plenty of couches for drinking delicious green tea on. I decided I liked Morocco.

Refreshed and caffinated, we set out to explore the markets. After a few minutes of wandering, we come across the enormous square of Jemaa el-Fnaa.

 

As Meg and I take in the sight, Megan sidles up behind us whispering “don’t let them put a monkey on you.” I’m sorry, what? “Apparently some people will put a monkey on your shoulder, and you have to pay them to take it off. They also do it with snakes.” This sounded liked a photo-op best avoided, so I kept an eye out as we made our way through the square and into the small side-streets that contained the souqs.

I’m not normally a shopper, but the souqs are fun. It’s an endless maze of small shops selling fascinating things. Haggling is pretty much the same as anywhere:
1. Express vague interest.
2. They say “give me democratic price for now” (a phrase I love).
3. Name a number. No matter what it is, they will look deeply offended.
4. Walk away.
5. Agree to the new lower price they chase you down with.

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We wandered into an apothecary where we were introduced to the smells and tastes of various herbal remedies popular in Morocco. After buying a few things the shop owners invited us to drink more delicious green tea with them! I forgot all about the snake-wielding monkeys.

The next day we met our guide, Abdullah, who would take us to the desert. An 8 hour drive sounds boring, but there were lots sites to see on the way, the landscape changed every 30 minutes or so, and we had a good group cry to Adele’s “Somebody Like You”. My favorite stop was at the Kasbah in Telouet. It looks like crumbing ruin from the outside, but inside has the elaborately geometric decor of a palace. We also had the place to ourselves, which made me feel less like a tourist and more like an explorer.

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The desert. One minute we’re in a place that looks indistinguishable from Arizona, the next minute, we’re here. Camels were waiting for us, so we mounted up and took off into the dunes. Our camels were a perfect match for their riders: Megan’s took off at a New York pace, having not yet mastered the art of strolling. Meg’s was, to put it delicately, gassy. My camel, taking up the rear, stubbornly refused to follow the other two.

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After a quick stop for some sand-boarding (which is just as awesome as it sounds) we arrived at the camp where we’d be spending the night. Meg and I immediately decided that in our dream house, we will have a room filled with sand covered by rugs, because it feels amazing to walk on. After dinner and a bit of live music by the fire, we took some blankets away from the camp and lay looking up at the stars. It was a wonderful experience, and at this point we realized it was a mistake to only spend one night in the desert. The next morning we had to drive back to Marrakesh to catch our plane.

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Chapter IV: Barcelona Part II (by Megan)

Since Grant wasn’t feeling great when we got back to Barcelona, we took it pretty easy. We explored the Placa d’Espanya and Montjuic area, which was primarily developed for the 1929 World’s Fair and then added to for the 1992 Olympics. The Magic Fountain is a common tourist spot, but the tiny structure behind it, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, is a must-see Modern icon for architects. Naturally, I had to see it.

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Meg and I continued up to the Montjuic Castle, which was really more of a fort, but impressive nonetheless. There were archers practicing on the grounds because, well, can you think of a more epic place to practice archery? By this point in the trip, we had mastered the technique of climbing up the highest point in sight to catch the sunset, so that is exactly what we did.

 

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To continue the sister bonding time, Meg and I went shopping at some stores that weren’t available in NYC. The most shocking trend we noticed was the prevalence of furry sweaters. We are talking full-on 2000’s style fuzzy sweatshirts. I especially appreciated this version because of our experience with the feral cats of Morocco (Editor’s note from Meg: There were so many feral cats on the street of Morocco. They terrified me. I think they could sense my fear, though, because they would swarm me at any chance. Even during dinner.).

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At this point, my time with Grant and Meg was up and they could finally have their sofa back. It was fun to mooch off of my big brother and to solidify a new sister relationship, but I am most grateful to have had the opportunity spend time with them in this chapter of our lives.

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