Taking a Break

We’ve had a lot of family stuff going on lately and it’s consumed most of my energy. I’ll be heading back to the US soon to be in the mix. But before that, we headed out to take a little break. It may seem strange since we live on the Med, but stepping back is important during times of stress, and since life varies at different points on the Mediterranean (even in Spain) – thinking north and east – we decided some time away was in order.

Luckily, we didn’t need to go far, since everything in Europe is so close. Mostly, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. But this trip included some of my favorite things.

  • A Place I LOVE!
  • Ancient history
  • Lots of ruins
  • A favorite beach
  • Introducing Jeff to a place he’s never been

Tarragona is just south of Barcelona, right on the Med. It’s easily accessible by train so no stressful flight delays. This time, catching the train, we did the very Spanish thing and arrived right as boarding began. This means 20 minutes before it leaves (that’s when they assign the track). Highly unusual for us, since we’re always early to everything. (As though a train or plane will come sooner than expected). I was in a ‘I just don’t care, even if we miss the train we’ll catch the next one’ mode.

The other wonderful part of it is that where we stayed had ZERO wifi and the city has terrible cell service. I’m not sure why getting a signal was so touch and go, but it meant we were out of communication for days.

If you’re thinking of visiting – I would recommend visiting the Amphitheater first. There you can purchase an all-inclusive ticket for the main sites in the city. These include the Amphitheater, Forum, Murallas, Circus, Tower (Necropolis) and the Archaeological museum (although it’s under renovation and closed now – luckily I have been before). There are palaces within the walled city and other sites not requiring a ticket. I would highly suggest walking the entire perimeter of the walls around the old city.

The history of ‘Tarroco’ goes back thousands of years. It was a key city in the Roman Empire. Rich, well positioned, easily defensible. The city was a classic Roman city, and since then changed hands many times. Visigoths, Moors, French – it was so important it became a military target where empires invested in expensive sieges, and the very costly occupation of unwilling populations. As we know today in most of our current military conflicts around the world – it will not end well. Winning a war is one thing. Winning the peace is quite another.

No matter how many times I visit a place I always learn something new. Perhaps we filter information differently at different times. Changing our focus. But as an enthusiastic student of history, I’m always looking for new insights. This time when visiting the remains of the Roman circus, there were new plaques. They explained how the chariot races were were staged. How rich Romans paid for the races – gave away tickets for free – and their social standing was based on how many of the poor peasants showed up. Basically, just like today with social media and harvesting ‘Likes’. We are all still the same people we were more than 2,000 years ago. Our reptilian brains haven’t evolved that much. The Kardashians immediately came to mind. No matter how rich, they still need to be loved by the masses.

Another thing we learned about is that the social system in The Roman Empire was all about continually leveling the playing field. Rise too high – become too rich, too influential – and eventually, the state would seize all your possessions. They feared any consolidation of power through money and influence. But social breakdowns started keeping this from happening and the fall of Rome was inevitable as the peasantry rose up.

Jeff has usually, very reluctantly, embraced my historical forays, but as we walked through this history, he was struck by the parallels to what’s going on in the US today. Much like the Romans, we seem to be imploding; hoisting ourselves on our own petard. And walking through Tarragona, you are literally walking ON history. You can’t miss the buildings built precariously on the past. I’m not sure what their building codes have historically been, but some of these more modern structures appear to be perched – ripe for an earthquake to take them out. But so far, so good.

Anyway, it was a relaxing time away. Much needed. Who knows what the future holds. But whenever things get too crazy today, a little visit to the past is what my heart needs.

Love is the Little Things

Jeff popped home to Valencia from Germany, for an overnight (about 7 hours total) before heading to the US. We’ve spent so much time together over the last year – more than any other time in our marriage – it felt a bit strange to have him away. But in the past it was usually me traveling for my work. Now I find it’s easier to be the person traveling than the one left at home. I’ve never really experienced that before. Hmm. But like most things, there’s always a silver lining.

Jeff spent last weekend in London with a friend who had never been to Europe. Some of the best trips are when you get to travel with those who haven’t seen what you’ve seen. Its a special kind of joy watching their reaction and wonder. Like experiencing it yourself for the first time. It’s what I always felt when traveling with our kids. Their excitement was contagious. Perhaps that’s why we traveled with them so much. The smiles, until they were teenagers. Oof!

I went with him to the airport this morning on the Metro. He had already packed his next suitcase before he left for London, so it was just a shower and then off to hop on another plane. He goes armed with a list of to-do’s. Since it’s tax season he has some things to get to our accountant and so much other administrative stuff. And he’ll get to see his Mom and Ryan. But one thing that is different than before is the shopping list. Perhaps I’m evolving.

Before we moved here we stocked up on all the things we thought we needed. Things we were worried we wouldn’t have been able to get here. Slowly but surely we have swapped out US stuff for Spanish stuff. Moisturizer, mascara, medicine. Our medicine cabinets look very different this year, so I had to wrack my brain to come up with things he would need to bring back in his suitcase. I guess we’re like snakes, shedding our skins for new ones.

It doesn’t mean Jeff hasn’t gone prepared. He is staying with my good friend Courtney and he’s been shipping stuff to her house for months. A new wet suit for paddling made for someone who is extra tall. You can’t get that here at the local Decathalon. And a host of other things for someone who is more Norway (giant) than Spain (not). But I was pretty proud of myself that what I asked for could fit into the pocket of a backpack.

I’m getting in a lot of writing time, and painting. So that’s my silver lining. Hopefully I can keep that up when he gets home.

But there is also the downside of him being away. Every morning Jeff makes me my coffee. Often I wake up to the smell of it brewing. It’s a new thing since we moved here. But he makes it just the way I like it. With cardamon in the brew and then a little sprinkle on top. It took him a few months to perfect it and now it’s the only coffee I like to drink. But I don’t know how to make it like he does so my days don’t start quite so perfectly without him.

My attempt at Cafe con Leche ala El Jefe

When I was on the Camino and in Spain for two months in 2017, Jeff missed my foot. Apparently he subconsciously checks in with me at night and taps his foot to mine in his sleep. When he couldn’t find it he would wake himself up. Hopefully he can sleep on this next bit of his trip.

Oh well – it’s a finite time frame, we will both survive. And it proves the old adage ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’. And I’m here to tell you that it truly does.

Back From Bilbao

We are home in Valencia again. It’s nice to sleep in our own bed. But we did see some really cool stuff and Bilbao is a place we’ll go back to. Like so many cities you visit, you just scratch the surface on a weekend trip. It takes multiple visits at varying times of year to really get a sense of the place. But this first visit left an impression.

The Basque country, where Bilbao sits, is unlike other place in Spain. Not only do they speak a completely different language – the etymology of Basque has yet to be cracked – the culture and traditions are different too. Comparing Valencia to Bilbao is like apples and oranges. Valencians seem much more low key. And drinking here is not a sport. In Bilbao, it seems staying out all night on the weekend and getting plastered isn’t a rare occurrence. More like just a Friday AND Saturday night. So sleeping in an area with a fair few bars was a challenge. I never thought I’d miss Falles. We walked around to other areas of the city at night. It was going on all over – younger and older people staggering down the street. We don’t see that here. Water trucks were out every morning spraying the sidewalks and streets. And it’s no wonder because the remnants of the previous nights partying is all over. You have to step over it if you go out for a morning coffee. Still, it’s very clean. Sometimes I wish they would water down the streets and sidewalks in Valencia more often – especially in summer.

But both cities are big on architecture. Valencia’s modern marvels are most uniform in nature. Bilbao’s more eclectic. If I had to sum up Bilbao in one word it would be ART. I use the term in the broadest sense. Yes, there are plenty of examples of fine art. Painting in the various museums, sculptures/monuments. But there is also architecture and costume. Even their infrastructure is done with an eye to the artistic. Below you’ll see some examples of what I mean.

We took a boat ride from the heart of Bilbao to the port town of Portugalete. It’s a two hour round trip that gives you a sense of what it was like to live and work along the river over the last 300+ years. And it’s undergoing a massive renaissance and revitalization. New housing and refurbishment of historic buildings, and warehouses to use as housing. An award winning Iraqi/English female architect – Zaha Hadid – won the bid to implement multiple phases of her bold new plan for Bilbao. It includes new bridges, an island development and much more. Sadly, she passed away in 2016, but her vision continues to play out in Bilbao and will live on.

The government has also invested over a billion $ over the last 30 years to clean up the river after so many centuries of industrial pollution. Today, it’s got a healthy oxygen rate in the water to support the fish, and wild life have returned to the estuaries. And speaking of water – sports involving water are all the rage. We saw regattas and loads of sea kayaking and rowing. Sail boats are everywhere in Portugalete. Jeff was in heaven.

This small town boasts a ‘Hanging bridge’ that is like a ferry in the air for those wanting to traverse the straight. It takes cars and people back and forth across the divide. There are only of few of these in the world and they’re all in Europe. We didn’t stop in the town but we will next time. There is a lot to see and do in the area.

Back along the river in Bilbao, you can see all the new award winning buildings that have sprung up on the river bank. The new futbol stadium that houses Athletic Club de Bilbao – the local La Liga club. A new convention center. All along the river there are walkways and sculpture littering the path.

When we returned to the city there was a procession going on – of course. What was this for? Who knows? And when I say that I mean it. We asked around. No one knew what it was for. They were just processing. But it was cool.

Random Bilbao Procession

One of the days we drove up through Mungia to Mirador San Juan Gaztelugatxeko. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan you’ll recognize some of the photos, as this is where Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragonstone Castle is located. In actuality, it’s north west of Bilbao by about 35km and is worth the steep hike down and the hike up the causeway and stairs. The views are amazing and you can ring the bell at the church. The hike down and then the eventual very (it seemed much steeper on the way back up) long climb back up to our car was a little more challenging.

You can stay at the inn at the top where the parking is located. And the pinchos in the bar is not to be missed. Each one is huge – like a meal unto itself. But the best thing about staying there are the views. Priceless.

Just as in Ireland where we watched the Irish sport of Hurling on tv, we watched handball in Bilbao. I remember from walking the Camino Frances that every town, village, hamlet in Navarra, no matter the size, had a handball court. Handball is the thing in Basque country. I’m including a video so you can see what I’m talking about. I can’t imagine smacking that hard ball with my hand over and over.

Basque Handball

One other random thing we saw on Bilbao tv in a bar was just more confirmation that driving in Spain is not easy. They have an actual show where they pick up people and drive them around quizzing them on Spanish traffic laws. They win prizes if they answer correctly. Like ‘Cash Cab’ filmed in NYC but in that case its random trivia. In this case it’s just the law. Sadly, most people failed.

The flight home was touted at a hour 15. In reality its more like 45 minutes. An easy quick weekend getaway from Valencia. We realized we need much more time than we allotted for exploration. We will be back.

Hola Bilbao

We are in Bilbao. Fallas Refugees. We’ve met so many people lately who are Fallas Virgins. They can’t believe we are leaving to escape ‘All the Fun!’. I’ve been called a ‘fuddy duddy’ and a ‘buzz kill’. But they’ll learn the closer we get to March 19th when all hell breaks loose. I heard from an experienced expat that they passed a new law this year; now they can’t shoot off sanctioned fireworks between 2:30 and 7am. Whew! A whole 4 1/2 hours of sleep coming right up. It’s really that last week when it’s non-stop and the entire city goes nuts, and ‘sanctioned’ isn’t really the issue.

So we fled. And boy are we glad. Full nights sleep and a lovely vacation to Northern Spain. Bilbao is a city on the north coast, right on the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. Its the beating heart of the Basque region. Culturally, and culinarily, it’s very different than Valencia. And Basque is a language that is nothing like Spanish or Valenciano.

I fell in love with Navarra when walking the Camino, so it feels wonderful to be back in the region. The Camino Frances doesn’t go through Bilbao. You have to walk the Camino del Norte if you want to do that. And just like so many other places in Spain, the flights from Valencia to Bilbao were cheaper than one way train tickets from Valencia to Barcelona. Who can pass up 7.99 euro airline tickets? Not me!

We are staying downtown near the Guggenheim Art Museum, It’s look alike cousin in Seattle, the famed EMP, (Experience Music Project) means that its architecture is something familiar to us. We will spend a day exploring their current collections in a few days.

The architecture in Bilbao is part 20th century Spanish, part 18th and 19th century cross European, blended with 21st century creative genius, and up on the surrounding hills they look more Swiss village. It’s wet, green and cold with dappled sunlight. Jeff is in heaven. One guy told me this time last year they were under feet of snow. Hmm.

The signs are in Spanish and Basque. Sometimes in Ingles too. Driving here is A LOT easier than in Valencia. Wider roads that makes sense. Imagine! Getting from the airport to town took maybe 20 minutes door to door and I’m happy to report even with me driving there was no swearing, tears or recriminations. When we arrived we saw that Valencia isn’t the only city in Spain to celebrate the Spring equinox. There is a festival in town and marchers for international Women’s Day. Lots of people out and about and rides with the requisite Churroteria to make the celebration that much sweeter – and deep fried.

We haven’t scratched the surface of the area yet but the blend of old and new has our attention and we are ready to hit the ground running exploring and, of course, looking at real estate. So far so good.

Last Days in Ireland – Feeling the Love

We left Derry and made our way back to Dublin. I’ve finally figured out the roads – what the letters mean – so we used the wider cow paths to get there – mostly uneventfully. I won’t lie, I’ll miss being called ‘Love’, ‘Pet’ or ‘Darlin” liberally sprinkled in any sentence that addressed me for the length of the country.

We fell in love with Derry so it was a little bitter sweet to leave it behind. The people in NI were lovely. We heard more Gaelic spoken the further North we went. Even though it’s UK. So happy that they’re keeping the language alive and it’s spoken on the street – not just in schools or at special occasions.

But we got plenty of sweets on our last day. Ireland makes donuts and ice cream one of the main food groups. We saw it all over the country and while Northern Ireland is technically the UK, they embrace it there too.

At Taboo Donuts I was a few pence short – I had winnowed my British pounds down knowing we were leaving the country. The woman understood.

Taboo Donuts – Derry, NI

‘No worries, love. I’ll just take 60 pence from the jar and if I see ya again, then I see ya. If not, no one leaves here without donuts.’

Of course, I went back to the hotel and found 60p in a pocket and brought it to her. How nice is that?!

Joe Jacksons ice cream was to die for. Lots of gluten free options and the scoop size is first rate. The place we stayed in Derry was, again, very traditional. Like our authentic coal burning Christmas in Mayo, our Derry Georgian New Year was a little smaller and more compact than we had planned. The pictures online were not accurate. So we were happy to move on back to Dublin to stay at more accommodating accommodations. An old Ducal Palace.

We headed first to Trinity College Dublin to see The Book of Kells. It’s a bible written many centuries ago – like a thousand years – on velum. But honestly, I was kind of ‘Meh’ on it. Not because it wasn’t beautiful or important, but after going to the Templar Castle in Ponferrada on my Camino in Northern Spain, where they have an entire library of such bibles and other books, it seemed a bit over-hyped.

But I did LOVE the library above where the the book is housed. It’s like what you expect all libraries in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries were like. With ladders and such. Women had to get permission to enter back then, all knowledge being for the Men and all. They have displays of some of their most famous female graduates that fought for their right to study and graduate from Trinity College. Ironically, Trinity was initially funded by Queen Elizabeth I, so honoring women just seems natural.

After pulling me out of the library, Jeff and Em and I walked to the river to see the EPIC museum. This is the Irish Emigration Museum. Emigration and Ireland are intertwined. Due to famine, oppression, war, and economic hardship, the Irish have been spread throughout the world seeking a better life. EPIC does an amazing job telling that story.

We were astounded and moved by the stories from artists, engineers, politicians, athletes and much more, who have changed the world by sharing their gifts with the rest of the world. But the one thing that moved me the most happened after we were done viewing the exhibit.

Of course, you exit through the gift shop – just like every where else. But tucked behind the elevator is the Irish Heritage center. For 12,50 euro they give you access to their data bases. And you can sit right down and look it all up.

We had heard from others in Northern Ireland that Jeff’s last name, Darragh, could be the same as the city Derry. Derry is Royal Oak – only in Irish (Gaelic) its pronounced Darragh. It’s not spelled that way in Gaelic but upon entering Ellis Island, the officers spelled people’s names how ever they liked.

So the lady at EPIC started helping us and we got no where. Jeff isn’t close to his Dad or that side of the family. A lot happened there after his parent’s divorce and it’s like a third rail. He doesn’t touch it. But this lady didn’t know that and kept asking questions. I could tell she was coming close to the third rail. And then something happened.

There, all of a sudden, was a record of his grandfather via his Uncle Paige – who we discovered wasn’t named Paige at all. Which led to other records and more relatives. And suddenly we were looking at the immigration record of his 9 year old great-great grandmother who was from Northern Ireland (where we had just been), and had boarded a ship alone during the Great Famine – sent to live in America with relatives. It takes ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ to a whole new level. Jeff was overcome.

And there was the ship’s manifest for his great-great grandfather – her eventual husband – who came from County Clare a few years later. It was all there in black and white, this 18 year old kid who made the crossing for a better life.

But there was something else. Jeff was very close to his grandparents when he was little. His grandfather owned a music store, and when ever we go into one here, Jeff always talks about him. What a kind man he was. And how much he loved his grandmother. Well in that data base in Dublin, they had a photo of his grandparent’s graves. Jeff had never seen or been to the graves before. He had tried to find out where they were but no one seemed to know. And yet here we were, 7 thousand miles away and he was looking at them. I’ve never seen him so struck. Still waters really do run very deep.

We had another place to hit on our list and the museum was closing so we had to go. Jeff was quiet on our walk to the Jameson Distillery. It was a lot to process. I saw this on a wall on our way and it seemed to say it all. Across time and across miles, love doesn’t diminish. Even if those we love are gone.

We would go to both the Jameson Distillary and The Guiness Store house. Both are kind of must-see touristy things to do. But I definitely prefer Jameson’s and would skip Guinness as being a little too over the top.

Jameson’s was started in 1780. They are still making whiskey in Cork and I felt like I connected with their story more because of how small an operation it still really is. Sure, they make whiskey and ship it all over the world. You can buy it anywhere. But the people working there took so much pride in the operation and the legacy, well, it just struck me as more authentic.

Maybe it was the family motto of Arthur Jameson. It mean’s ‘Without Fear’ and as a Scottish Immigrant coming to Ireland to make whiskey from his own sweat and hard work, I liked it. Perhaps I’ll borrow that.

By contrast, Guinness feels HUGE. But of course they do. They’re everywhere, in every pub in Ireland. I had started taking pictures of the ads I saw on buildings all over the country. The message was clear ‘Guiness is good for you’ and it actually said it in one sign. It was always the working man’s drink – a reward after a hard day’s labor. But in Ireland, ‘the drink’ has a darker history.

But the view from the bar at the top of the Guinness Storehouse is not to be missed. The rest of it – Meh. You can see that it’s above the cloud bank looking out through the window in the first photo. Jeff enjoyed a pint too.

Our last stop before Em was due to fly out was Murphy’s Ice Cream. This was a must see for Emilie. She had watched ‘Somebody Feed Phil’ on Netflix this summer and when we told her we were going to Ireland she said ‘We need to go to that place he had ice cream’. So we did.

Murphy’s is a County Dingle company with a few locations sprinkled in the south of the country. They make some traditional favorites but specialize in crazy flavors like Sea Salt and Brown Bread. And that’s what Emilie ordered.

The staff are absolutely wonderful Brand ambassadors and we enjoyed chatting with them as much as eating the ice cream. An American couple came in and the kid behind the counter said ‘Hey, weren’t you here yesterday?’

The man looked incensed. ‘No’ he replied very cranky. As though the kid were implying that he was there too often.

‘Ach, too bad. You see, we give all our customers who come a second time free ice cream.’

That made the guy laugh.

This interaction is so typical of our whole trip. The Irish just have a way about them. They smile, they laugh, they cajole. You can’t be mad. We were on our way to the airport but had to make a stop to pick up another suit case. Yes, I finally admitted I had done a little shopping.

We parked on Merrion Square (Oscar Wilde called it home) and were walking into the main shopping areas. On the square, artist hang their canvases on the black fences and sell their work to passersby. It’s been going on for a long time and this square fronts the Irish National Gallery so it’s no wonder. Some of the artists are talented beyond what I ever hope to achieve with my dabbling, and they’re selling their art for peanuts.

But they’re also starving artists and they can be aggressive in their pitch. One old man – who’s canvases and those of his son are something I would be proud to hang in any home, sang me an Irish love song while trying desperately to get me to load up my, as yet, newly acquired suit case with a canvas or two of his work.

I’ve decided I’m going to create a gallery on this site for all our adventures. I’ve got too many photos that won’t fit into my blog posts. But then, after just scratching the surface of Ireland, I’m pretty sure there aren’t enough photos or blogs to capture the beauty and the people. We will be back.