10 Most Memorable Things – Europe

It’s been a week or so since we’ve returned from the European part of our new adventure. We are settling into our new rental home in Fall City (near Seattle), unpacking, and re-establishing our Seattle life. As we unpack and organize, we’ve all had a good chance to reflect on our travels. We all put together our “top 10” lists of the most memorable things for us each of us from Europe. You’ll see a few similarities, some differences and some, well, fun surprises.

Aidan’s Top 10

  1. The floooooood oooh spooky: That flood was something. Man, it totally deserves a highlight. It was scary and fun at the same time! I am sorry I got excited. *Clears throat* okay so I felt like I was going to get hypothermia I was so cold on the bench and then I hung like a towel on the tree after the water was too high on the bench. But it was hard to climb the tree because I could barely move my legs.
  2. The best gelato ever in Orvieto: I loved that place. It was in a good spot. The gelato flavors tasted real and not artificial. The chocolate was creamy and smooth and delish. The fruit flavors tasted like you were eating fruit off of the bush.
  3. El Gollo del Oro in Roma: I loved that restaurant. The food was amazing. The place was beautiful. I had fun taking pictures and talking and eating.
  4. Provence, France: I really enjoyed it there. It was peaceful and nice, good weather, nice cats. The grape trees were fun to play in. The town was really nice but save the town for a minute.
  5. Orvietto Duomo: That place was pretty cool. I liked the colors of the stone and the interior also the exterior design was cool. The gargoyles were cool and the chapels were cool.
  6. The Cappuccin bone place in Roma: This place man the bones and the patterns and designs were overwhelming and amazing. But the children skeletons were kind of disturbing and the fact the 100s of people’s bones were there was too.
  7. Walking to town in France by myself: I thought it was pretty cool going by myself and mom and dad putting that much trust in me to do that.
  8. Barcelona: Barcelona was cool but not as cool as France. It had better food and that counts for something. We lived in a nice spot had good food.
  9. Double 00, Barcelona: Let me just say I am pretty sure we all loved that place. Yes? No? Okay, awkward. I liked the building. The food was amazing like the passion fruit mousse.
  10. Argentinian grill, Barcelona: Again we all liked that place lets establish that one more time. The place had a nice modern feel with some fanciness added in that. And most important of all the food was amazing.

Nev’s Top 10

  1. The food in Europe, in general really, over-rode my expectations. I never expect much, if anything, and the food was delicious. Generally speaking, it was better than the US. It’s usually fresh and the flavors are to die for. The things that would have cost a lot of money for little in return in the US, cost less in Europe for way better results. I tried differently cooked things I eat often such as chicken, and tried new pastas. Sauces were full of flavor, and interesting starters were tasty. We had cultural food from Spain, Italy, and France and it was awesome.
  2. The transportation in Europe is really efficient (unlike the US) such as the train system. We rode a lot of trains to get to different cities/towns and countries. I’ve always wanted to ride a train, but I learned it’s not that great. The scenery on the way and the graffiti you pass is interesting but otherwise it’s just a long ride. But the fact that you can get on a train to go to another city or country in Europe instead of having to go on a plane is pretty cool.
  3. The sculptures and art we saw were cool. The David for example. I could look at it for hours. I was actually looking forward to drawing it. It was really detailed and the anatomy was spot-on. Some of the other sculptures were beautiful too. And some of the paintings and other art were nice, even though it was mostly about Jesus and stuff but it was still really detailed and unique.
  4. Throughout our trip I came across a lot of local cats, and some were stray. The strays were fed daily by local people which was nice, the cats recognized their feeders too. They were friendly and I liked petting them. It was nice to see that nice, cozy local small town feeling I suppose. It seemed like there were more cats in Europe than dogs, and I didn’t see any stray dogs.
  5. The flood had an adrenaline rush that I’d never felt before. I’ve never been in a situation until now that made me think Aidan and/or dad might die. I also had never been in a flood. It was something interesting that happened and not the same old daily things. It showed me how grateful I am to have my family. I could have lost them. I realized I take them for granted sometimes and I regret that. I love them more than they know, and wish every day I knew how to thank them properly for what they do for me.
  6. In Provence we stayed at a house out in the country. It had big grapevine fields that were fun to run through. The sunsets were beautiful along with the stars because the sky was so big and open. There were also two cats that lived there, which I practiced my photography on. The female’s name was Cloe and she was gorgeous. She liked me to and remembered me whenever I came back from somewhere in town. She’d crawl into my lap and let me pet her. She was a hunter too, it was fun to play with her and give her things to chase.
  7. I’ve only had gelato a couple times before Europe, and it just tasted like ice cream so I thought that’s how it was supposed to taste. But then I had gelato and Europe and it amazed me. All the flavors there were to choose from, some of them being strange and never would have thought of there being a flavor of anything – but they turned out good. Each gelato place was different. No chocolate flavor tasted the same, but all of them were good.
  8. The Italian haircut I got was cool. It was the best haircut I’ve ever gotten. It was clean and the guy made sure to get every hair. It was cool to watch him do different settings on the buzzer, and to see him in such focus. And he got all the little hairs off of my head when he was done which was nice. It felt fancy compared to my Costa Rica haircuts.
  9. The small on-hill town we stayed at in Orvieto was nice. It was quiet and most of the town didn’t allow cars. All of the streets were like alleyways. The restaurants were mostly small local family ones. One of them was amazing with homemade pastas and sauces that melted in your mouth. The church there was pretty too, and had amazing paintings.
  10. In Florence there was a market that was really cool. It was like a farmers market but with items, leather items mostly. There were leather jackets, belts, bags, wallets, bracelets, and lots of other things. We got a bunch of stuff there. Some things we weren’t expecting to come back with. Mom and dad were really excited about the things there, which was nice to see. There were cool gadgets and fresh smelling leather.

Deb’s Top 10

  1. Genoa flash flood
    This has to go at the top. It was certainly not the most enjoyable but will likely never be forgotten. I’ve written some about this already. I admittedly still run scenarios in my head from time to time about what I would have/could have done if Andy had missed when he dove and grabbed for Aidan.
  2. Farmhouse near Bonnieux, Provence, France
    Our little farmhouse outside of town was a gem. The time here was very relaxing and peaceful. I loved sitting out on the daybed by the grape fields, snacking on delicious French cheese and drinking the local wine. This was my first time in France. I found the people to be so friendly and very patient with my complete lack of French language skills.
  3. La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
    This was breathtaking for me. The scale, vision, and cohesion of elements from floor plan, elevations, materials, texture, sculpture, and all the way through natural and artificial light is awe-inspiring. I hope to be able to go again when it is finished. The kids promised that they would go.
  4. Playing along the city wall in Avila
    We were just walking along the outside of the wall to get back to our hotel. This particular spot along the wall sort of drew me in. There were many boulders in the grass along the wall, shade, grass and tiny wildflower. Those things made it a bit of a magical spot to stop and play. We climbed, laughed, talked, and just sat to rest. It was lovely.
  5. Gelato at Il Gelato di Pasqualetti in Orvieto
    I was in Ovieto 15 years ago. That was my first trip to Italy. After sampling a multitude of offerings, I concluded then that this was the best gelato. Coming to Orvieto again, I could only hope that it might still be there and still be as tasty. It was still there and after many more gelato samplings in the intervening 15 years, I believe it still to be the BEST gelato.
  6. Güell Park, Barcelona
    We ended walking around the public area of the part because we did not know that you needed to purchase tickets ahead of time for the Gaudi sculpture section. It turned out to be a wonderful thing. The public area was not terribly crowded. We walked around the beautiful gardens and then were drawn to some harp music. We ended up sitting, listening, and watching under a beautiful stone archway that provided wonderful acoustics for a local harp player. The organic design, the music, the gardens, and the harp player herself made it seem like a magical fairy garden.
  7. Hearing Aidan say “this is cool” in the Medici Chapel, Firenze
    The kids were not always enthusiastic about the various venues, or the trains, or the prep reading.  Occasionally I would wonder if all of it was worth it and if they were actually getting as much out of the trip as we had hoped. This one, unprompted comment was the thing we were hoping to hear. It was worth the wait.
  8. Seeing Nev’s huge smile and enthusiastic “thanks” to the barber in Rome.
    Again, Nev was not overly excited about going on this trip. We had many conversations about observing and appreciating the subtleties of different cultures. Watching the precision and attention to detail during the haircut was amazing to me. It was something I had not seen before. It never occurred to me that Nev would notice. This moment – the big smile, the look of enjoyment and respect, the enthusiastic thanks and handshake – was the one for which I had waited. Just like Aidan’s above. This was when I knew something had clicked and learning had happened.
  9. Cheese at the wine festival in Barcelona
    I like good, strongly flavored cheese. I had not had any for the past 10 months as Costa Rican cheese are quite mild. Andy and I stumbled upon this outdoor festival of local wines, cheeses, and cured meats. I let Andy pick the wines for sampling and he let me pick the cheeses. I did this mainly by following my nose. I selected the ones that smelled the most interesting.  I somehow ended up with an unknown variety of a local blue cheese. It was so good I cried – just a little bit. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the taste of that cheese.
  10. Watching Flamenco dancing at local bar in Seville
    Andy and I spent a late evening at a local bar in Seville watching local residents gather and dance Flamenco. We could have gone to watch professionals but this was so much more fun. They clearly did it because they truly enjoyed the art form and the camaraderie. The best part was one of the men teaching the dance to some newcomers. He explained the same way to several different people the hand movement as reaching up to change a ceiling light bulb. It was fantastic to watch.

Andy’s Top 10

  1. The flood of Genoa
    The flood should have been frightening in many ways. It’s memorable to me for some good reasons though. I saw Aidan in a crisis situation and he handled himself really well. I was proud of him. It had been awhile since I had been in a situation like that and it was a bit eerie to feel that sense of calm and focus when things go south. Most importantly, I felt like we all bonded and were truly together as one family that night. As the young adults get older, those moments get rarer and I cherish them.
  2. La Segrada Familia
    I had only heard about La Sagrada Familia and seen some pictures, none of which could truly do this amazing architectural feat justice. I was awestruck at the care toward each detail Gaudi had and legacy Gaudi has left to finish this task. Could have spent days there. I am not usually moved deeply by architecture, but here in this special place I was.
  3. Gladiator camp, Rome
    The gladiator practice with Aidan was fun, of course, but the real memorable highlight was the history lesson on Rome. I thought I appreciated what the Romans had accomplished, but I had a new found respect for their achievements listening to our very passionate gladiator trainer. Having 40 or so people in Roman armor show up for a celebration after our class was pretty memorable too.
  4. Piazza Signoria, Firenze
    I had forgotten how truly incredible this Piazza was. I sat there entranced, looking at the sculpture and taking photographs. I really wanted to sit and draw. Maybe next time. The highlights also included how transfixed Nev was and how peaceful Deb looked sitting there.
  5. World’s Best Gelato
    What is a ten best list without the world’s best gelato? I often get disappointed when I return somewhere and a wonderful place I had discovered is now gone (this just happened in Ashland, Oregon on our way back to Seattle in the car). I was so happy to see our little gelato discovery was still right where it was in Orvieto, as if 15 years had not gone by. It reminded me of Deb and my first trip there.
  6. Dancing with my love in Sevilla
    We don’t know Flamenco. After listening for awhile, though, we thought we’d try it. We did more of a salsa/swing step, but it worked with the music and the people there were very accommodating. It’s always magical dancing with Deb. At 1am in Sevilla, Spain, dancing to a new kind of music in a small, local little club, it was priceless.
  7. Watching the street artists in Firenze
    Watching (good) street artists is another thing I could do for hours. She wasn’t the type doing caricatures. She was using pastels on the black cobblestone street and recreating a Renaissance painting. I though Nev might like watching her and suggested it. It was wonderful to see that Nev has the same ability to watch and appreciate art in the making. What a wonderful unschooling moment.
  8. The Duomo cupola tour, Firenze
    I really hoped to do a secret passage tour in Firenze. While it was not meant to be, the cupola tour was close. I love wandering through the “hidden” spaces of great buildings. The really memorable part, though, was seeing the dome art up close. It’s one thing to see it from several hundred feet below. When you see it close, you really have a much more profound appreciation for what these amazing artists did. In many ways, it is a lost skill. CG is just not the same.
  9. Montserrat mountains
    I love mountains. I need to live by them and Deb needs to live by the sea. That’s why Seattle is such a great place for us. The mountains around the Montserrat monastery were beautiful and unearthly. I have never seen such terrain before. I would have loved to hike in those mountains. Sitting and looking at them was a close second and a memorable experience.
  10. Three hours in line with Aidan at Portaventura
    This one is probably a surprise, especially if you know Aidan. In the Portaventura theme park, we waited about three hours to see a big Halloween “haunted forest.” Aidan is like me – always moving and impatient. What was memorable about the three hours, especially reflecting on it now, was that it was just the two of us hanging out and we had a good time, despite the cold and waiting. I saw him engage total strangers in (very mature) conversation. I saw him describe all sorts of favorite shows, Youtube videos and video games with excitement. We played games (like the one where balance and you try to push each other over). We talked about a lot of things. And he must have thanked me twenty times for staying in line with him. It was a little like a long run…the first 15 minutes were tough, but then you get into the “zone.” I need to find a way to get into that zone with him more often.

We went on this five week odyssey to give Nev and Aidan a chance to see history, religion, art, and architecture up close and give them a real appreciation for history and Europe. We took away so much more. Looking at what was memorable to everyone here, it’s clear that each of us had our own perspective filled not just with memorable places, but memorable experiences with each other. We travelled five weeks with just backpacks and were together every day. We saw some lights go on. We saw some inspiration. And we became closer. Now that’s the most memorable experience. Pura vida.

Avila

The next stop on our new adventure was the historic walled city of Avila in northern Spain. The city has grown a bit beyond the original walled city which is around 1300 years old and is regarded as the finest walled city in all of Europe. It sports the famous nine gates wall comprising 87 towers. In our trip planning, Debbie discovered this intriguing city and so it easily became one of our stops.

The ride to Avila from Sevilla ended up being a bit of an “Amazing Race” adventure in itself. We started on the high-speed “AVE” train in Sevilla. It would take us to Madrid, where we would take a “short train” from the long distance arrival train station (Atocha) to another train station called Chamartin to catch our medium range train to Avila.

Arriving in Madrid, we had 45 minutes to get to our Avila train. It was the only train out to Avila with seats available. We were told it was plenty of time and that the ride to the Charmatin station was free. This might have been true if we actually knew the train station.

After we exited the train, we made the mistake of going into the main terminal area, which then made us have to buy tickets again to get to Chamartin station. That would not have been too bad, but signage was unclear about whether we could take the metro or a local train (it was actually both). I made a guess and got us 4 local train tickets.

Once on the local train we had another bit of a panic as to where to get off; there were 4 stops with “Chamartin” signage. We got help from a local and found the stop, no problem. We exited in Chamartin station and had about 10 minutes still left to get our train. We found it after a bit of searching on one of the various train boards but there was no platform marked.

The Madrid train station is pretty long and has 18 platforms (like gates in an airport). We came up in the middle. The board had our train number and “REG EXPRESS” next to it, but no platform identified even after a few minutes. We thought perhaps that “REG EXPRESS” meant that it left on a specific platform. I saw destinations lit up above each platform entrance and so I started running down the north end of the platform reading each one, hoping that one would be ours. We had about 6 minutes until our train left. Deb and the young adults followed closely enough in case I found it but not too far so they didn’t have to run to the end.

The north end was a bust so I ran to the south end. It would have been a lot more fun except that we are all wearing our Tortuga backpacks (thank goodness for those). Mine weight about 30 pounds and when I ran I didn’t exactly have a narrow profile. I got to be the blocker though for the others 🙂

The south end was no better and when I saw that our gate was not down there and that we had one minute until our train left, I expected that we’d be left behind.

Deb looked at the big board one more time and saw that our platform number had been posted! Of course, it was number 13. We all sprinted to the platform entrance, down the walkway and into the train just before it took off. While it was super stressful, it was a great, and successful, “Amazing Race” moment. Without the stress, I don’t think you get the excitement. But, we would probably have just settled for boring when it comes to catching the last train in a foreign country with two young adults in tow.

We arrived in Avila without any problems and it was a short walk to our hotel. Deb and I let Aidan and Nev relax while we scoped out the town and a place for dinner. We took a long walk all the way to the walled city part of Avila, next to the Church of San Vicente.

Avila - Church of San Vicente

Avila – Church of San Vicente

Church of San Vicente

We found what we thought was a good restaurant next to a helado (gelato) shop and went back for the young adults. On the way back to the restaurant we had chosen, we happened upon what we thought would be a better restaurant choice. We were really hoping for some great food after our experiences in Sevilla and we were not disappointed.

Avila is out in the country and there is evidently a lot of farm-raised beef. We had some of the largest and best steaks we’ve ever had (and that’s saying a lot since Deb is from Kansas). We all had great meals and our bad luck food streak was over.

The next day we went out to see the amazing walled city of Avila.

avila walled city

avila walled city

Avila Flying Buttresses

Avila Flying Buttresses

Model of Avila

Model of Avila

Avila

We started with a walking audio tour of the ramparts (the ledge up on the wall). It was a pretty interesting setup for an audio tour. As we walked by different areas, we would hear details about those areas specifically.

Walking the walls was not only fun but really gave us insight into defending a castle or walled city. This walled city was interesting in that about every forty yards or so there was a tower which jutted out from the wall.

Avila Front Gate

Avila Front Gate

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Towers

These created more “surface area” for defense and gave defenders the ability to protect the wall better. The walls were all rock, about three feet thick. Despite a few areas where the wall had been repaired over the centuries, it looked like it wasn’t going anywhere.

The wall is named the “nine gates wall” because there are nine gates or portals around its circumference. Some are very small and a few are pretty large – car or carriage size. Two of the larger ones were on the sides and one of the smallest was at the very back end of the walled city.

The patron saint of Avila is Saint Teresa of Jesus. Santa Teresa founded the Carmelite order of nuns – a very secluded order of nuns. I had actually visited a Carmelite convent when I was in Catholic high school – at least I visited the door to the convent.

After the wall tour, we explored the interior of the walled city. They tried to keep the original layout and architecture as much as possible while allowing for modern conveniences like cars.

As you’d expect, the streets were very narrow and so all roads were one-way. It must be a nightmare maze for cars (good!). The streets were all cobblestone and many of the buildings were the original stone.

Avila Inside

Avila Inside

Avila Inside

Avila Inside

The Streets of Avila

Inside the walls there is of course a great church. We didn’t get an explanation of why this church wasn’t Santa Teresa’s church. It was gothic and was a really interesting shade of uniform gray rock. There was a large basilica on one side, flying buttresses, and a spires. The gargoyles seemed pretty worn but it had wonderful lion statues surrounding the church.

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral and Lion

Avila Cathedral and Lion

Avila Cathedral

After a day of touring the inside, we walked back to our hotel. It was a great walk as we got to walk along the walls of the city. There was a green area between the walkway and the walls and you could almost get a sense of what this walled city looked like hundreds of years ago.

There were many rocky areas near the walls, which Aidan enjoyed climbing. We had a lot of fun in the late afternoon sun sitting on the rocks, taking pictures, and just enjoying the environment.

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Deb and Nev

Deb and Nev

The Walls of Avila

That night we walked back to Avila and found another wonderful restaurant. The steak was fantastic once again and so was the duck. They had twenty entries under “sherry” and Deb and I enjoyed a fine sherry from the region for dessert. Nev and Aidan had to suffice with lava cake.

We left Avila the next morning. It was a short, but wonderful trip. Evidently, though, we switched our “bad food luck” for “bad train luck.” Our exit wasn’t nearly as exciting as our entry, but we had some stressful moments.

Our (original) train was to leave at 10:05 and take us to Madrid, Chamartin, where we had so much trouble before, and then catch a short connection to Madrid, Atocha for our next leg to Barcelona.

We arrived at 9 and Deb found an earlier train that could take us directly to Atocha without the confusing inter-city transfer, so we gladly hopped it. At 10:05, it stopped at one of its stops in El Escorial. It seemed like many other stops, although we noticed a number of people getting off. Then, they turned the train off.

The people who got off took another train. We were there alone. Based on what Deb heard, this train went all the way to Atocha. Well, we learned it did not. We had to catch another train to get there.

We were stuck in El Escorial at 10:20. We had to catch our train to Barcelona at 1:10pm and then our train from Barcelona to Avignon, France at 5:30. There wasn’t much time between the trains. So our “Amazing Race” stress started up again, but this time we couldn’t run or do anything. Frankly, I’d take running versus sitting any day of the week. At least you feel like you are doing something.

Everything worked out though. There was another train coming in an hour at 11:15 and it would get us to Atocha by 12:25 – plenty of time to catch our high-speed train at 1:10pm. The little snafu didn’t hinder us – as I write from our high-speed Ave train comfortable cruising to Barcelona at nearly 300 kilometers per hour – but it did tell us to be wary of trains near Avila in the future.

Traveling by train is at once more comfortable and more hectic than traveling by air. We hadn’t traveled by train in Europe much before and so hadn’t really appreciated this. Booking trains can be confusing. Transferring between trains can be stressful. Sitting in the comfort of a high speed train is indeed a wonderful experience.

The AVE trains, at least in Spain, have these most amazing bocadillos (sandwiches) with serrano ham and manchego cheese on a grilled baguette. Pure heaven. These have become a highlight of our travel. In fact, we now call the high-speed AVE trains the “sandwich trains.” We all were looking forward to the sandwich trains from Madrid to Barcelona and then from Barcelona to Avignon.

I think we have the rail system down now. The young adults now have a feel for what travelling by rail should be like (unlike rail in the Pacific Northwest). We’re not sure what “curve ball” we might find in the next stop, France, but we are ready for it. We are looking forward to more great adventures, interesting discussions with Nev and Aidan, and amazing places to see. Stay tuned. Pura vida.

PS: More pictures!

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Avila Cathedral Tower

Avila Cathedral Tower

Details Inside Avila

Details Inside Avila

Details Inside Avila

Details Inside Avila

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Avila

Avila