Friday, August 31, 2012

Photo Friday: Pictures of Lisbon

Red-tiled roofs, a medieval castle, grand city squares, colorful flowering balconies, and majestic buildings are what we found in Lisbon this summer.

This post is part of Photo Friday at

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Madrid Atocha Railway Station

A fun post by BootsnAll about a year ago listed the World's 11 Coolest Train Stations.  Atocha Station in Madrid was one.  I liked the photo of the indoor botanical garden inside the station and looked forward to seeing it when we took the train from Madrid to Seville in June.  But I missed it!  How could that be?  I'm sure we walked through the main entrance.  We certainly boarded our train.  Was it on another floor?  Is the station really that big?

Madrid Atocha is the largest railway station in Madrid.  It was completely remodeled in 1985 and is now a modern steel and glass building with underground platforms.  There is a somber memorial shrine in the station dedicated to the memory of the 191 people killed in the al-Qaeda-inspired commuter train bombings there on March 11, 2004, but we didn't see that either.  Sometimes when we're traveling we happen on sights we weren't expecting, and sometimes we completely miss things we're looking for.

Madrid Atocha was the only train station we traveled through in Spain where baggage is x-rayed before boarding.  There is no free wifi in the station, but there are free bathrooms.

Waiting inside the train at Madrid Atocha.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Photo Friday: Colorful Shop

Isn't this a wonderful looking gift shop in Vejer, Spain?

This photo is one of many travelers' photos featured on Photo Friday at

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review of Hotel Riviera in Évora, Portugal

I described in an earlier post the unpleasant happenstance which led us to the Hotel Riviera in the town of Évora, Portugal.  Luckily, Hotel Riviera quickly turned that day around for us.  You can judge a book by its cover in this case, because it attracted my eye from down the street with its cute wrought iron balconies, fresh yellow paint, and welcoming entrance.  To our relief, there were two double rooms available for 71€ each and they were right next door to each other so we didn't have to worry about being too far from the kids.

What was so delightful about checking into the hotel was the kind gentleman at the reception desk.  He told me immediately that he was happy to rent me the rooms but he wanted to show them to me first.  He bolted up the stairs and told me to follow him.  (No elevator - downside for the disabled and those with lots of luggage.)  The rooms were lovely - I couldn't understand what he was concerned about - but then he opened the window and pointed outside down below.  A nightclub.  He was seriously apologetic and tried to explain in broken English that the windows were double-paned and eliminated much of the noise but we would hear music until 2 a.m.  (Only 2 a.m.?  They don't party until the wee hours in Portugal like the Spanish?)  I wasn't worried about it since I wear earplugs every night, and I figured my kids would be too tired to notice.  My husband probably wouldn't go to bed until 2:00 a.m. anyway.  We gladly rented the rooms.

Our room with queen bed.

The kid's room with twin beds.

In the lobby of the hotel lurks a little history:  a portion of an excavated ancient Roman wall encased behind glass (to the left of the stairs) which the receptionist was very proud of and told us what he could about it, again in his best English.

Hotel Riviera also has a pretty breakfast room (buffet breakfast not included in room rate) decorated with antique Portuguese furnishings and a comfortable reading room with an original vaulted brick ceiling.

Breakfast room.

Reading room.

Roman Temple of Diana in Évora.
Hotel Riviera offers free parking right around the corner near the cathedral in an open parking lot in a very safe location.  That evening we strolled over to the Templo de Diana, the ancient Roman temple in Évora and took some photos, had dinner in a diner-style restaurant, and wondered why the town was so empty of young people on a warm summer evening.  It seemed only old folks were sitting around the local square.  When we got back to the Hotel Riviera we figured out why:  every young person in the entire city was at the nightclub beneath our windows.  (I still highly recommend the hotel, though.  The sound was muffled and none of us had any trouble sleeping.  Certainly you could request a room on the other side of the hotel.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Live and Learn

The lovely UNESCO town of Évora in Portugal.

I like to learn from my mistakes, or at least have my children learn from them.  One such learning experience occurred when we arrived in the city of Évora in Portugal this summer.  I love staying in novelty accommodations - a winery, a hostel, a chalet - so I was excited when I booked the EvoraMoors House for our one night stay in Évora after reading it described as a "typical Alentejo house with mezzanine."  The small grainy photo on looked cute, too.

After some difficulty finding the EvoraMoors House in the labyrinth of one-way alleyways that is Évora, I jumped out of the car when I spotted the correct address.  As I approached the small, dark door I immediately got an uneasy feeling.  There were three men talking in the dark "lobby" with no reception desk, and one of them greeted me.  I told him I had a reservation and he said okay, but didn't ask my name or check a book or computer or anything.  I whispered to my son to go tell Daddy not to unload the luggage yet, I was creeped out.  I asked if I could take a look at the room.

My husband came with me as the kids waited in the illegally parked car (the only way to park on a tiny one-way street) as a barefooted (yeah, really), shabbily dressed man led us around the corner to another door facing the street to show us our "apartment."  I hope I didn't gape too loudly in horror over the odor and uncleanliness of the room.  There were no windows, the loft bed visibly drooped in the center, and the double futon that my kids were meant to sleep on was covered with hair and dirt.  We politely told him no thank you, and skedaddled out of there.

"What will we do now?"  "Where will we sleep tonight?"  "Won't we have to pay a cancellation fee?"  The kids were concerned.  Since we started traveling with our children, we had never not had a hotel reservation.  It was a teaching moment:  "Well, children . . . " (just kidding - they'd roll their eyes at me if I ever started a sentence like that), "we're just going to find another hotel.  And if it's overpriced, these are allowances you have to make in your budget ahead of time."  Oh God, I hope there's a vacancy somewhere, I was thinking.

But voilà, hubby and I looked like heroes when we turned the corner, spotted the lovely Hotel Riviera, and there were two rooms available.  The price was reasonable, we checked in, and then completely enjoyed our two days in ancient Évora. had me tagged as a no-show, but when I got home I described the circumstances to them in an email and they immediately waived the cancellation fee.  What great service - I highly recommend booking hotels through

Friday, August 17, 2012

Photo Friday: Jamón, Jamón Everywhere

It is particularly convenient when traveling to Spain to like ham.  Jamón.  Pronunciation: huh-MOAN.  You will become very familiar with that word.  In fact, you will probably start singing it, setting the word to little rhymes in your head.

Jamón, Spanish ham, everywhere that you see,
Jamón, smoked and sliced, on a sandwich for me!

Packed up in its packings, its ribbons, its wrappings,
Its snoof and its fuzzles, its tringlers and trappings!

It hangs in the shops, in the cafés, and bars,
Take it home on your bikes, on your trikes, and your cars!

Cured, dried, and salted, aged, brined, and stewed,
Lean, fat, or boneless, it's glorious food!

And the Spaniards, young and old, will sit down to a feast.
And they'll feast!  And they'll feast!  And they'll FEAST!  FEAST!  FEAST!  FEAST!  

This post is linked to Photo Friday at

Monday, August 13, 2012

The White Hill Town of Arcos de la Frontera

Arcos de la Frontera, Spain, above and below.

Just the words "White Hill Towns of Andalusia" conjure up romantic images of charming little whitewashed villages with flowering terra cotta pots and brightly colored bougainvillea.  I was intrigued by them and determined to visit several white hill towns while traveling through southern Spain last month.  

These villages in Spain's Cadiz Sierra range are painted bright white to reflect the hot summer sun, and were built on the edges of cliffs and hillsides as a natural defense against invaders.  Most ancient white hill towns are also surrounded by fortified defensive walls.  Needless to say, these cities are a photographer's dream.  

Arcos de la Frontera is one of the most frequently visited of the Andalusian white hill towns because of its dramatic perch atop a sheer limestone cliff face and its stunning views of the Guadalete Valley below.  We drove there in our rental car and thought it a good idea to park below the city in a parking garage rather than try to maneuver through the tangled web of narrow one-way streets up in town.  The weather was very hot, but we enjoyed the stroll up through the twisting alleyways (with a stop for an ice cream, of course).

View of the Guadalete Valley below Arcos de la Frontera.

We walked to the centrally located Plaza del Cabildo, a square that long ago was used as a bullring, with a terrific lookout over the river plain below.  The 7th century Church of Santa María lost the top of its single bell tower in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and sits unfinished in the plaza.

Arches bridging between homes and buildings in Arcos add architectural beauty as well as earthquake support today.

We visited several other white hill towns in southern Spain:  Ronda, Grazalema, Zahara, Vejer, and Jerez de la Frontera.  Towns with the extension de la Frontera were ones that stood on the 13th century "frontier" between the Christians and the North African Moors.  They played an important role in the centuries-long fight of the Spaniards to reconquer Spain from the Muslims (Moors).  Arcos' castle was built by the Moors in the 11 century.  It is privately owned and not open to the public.

The historical white hill town of Arcos de la Frontera is a peaceful village with an authentic Andalusian ambiance, definitely worth visiting.  We did not sleep in Arcos, but rather in nearby Ronda.  Transportation to Arcos is only via bus from Seville (about 90 miles) or by car.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday, Bonma!

My beautiful grandmother, whom we call Bonma, turned 100 years old this week and we celebrated today.

She was born and raised in Antwerp, Belgium, and survived the German occupation in World War II living in the cellar with my grandfather and their two children (one of them my dad).  She ran out into the streets to celebrate when the American tanks came rolling through the city to liberate them.

In the 1950s she convinced my grandfather they should move to America, the land of opportunity, and they came here on an ocean liner with their three children.

She looked at her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered around her today at her 100th birthday party and said, "So . . . I guess I'm the reason you're all here in America today!"

Love the little Belgian flags in the corners of her birthday cake.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Photo Friday: Egyptian Temple in Madrid

The Egyptian Temple of Debod in Madrid, Spain.

How did an Egyptian temple get to Madrid?  In 1960, the Temple of Debod, as well as other ancient relics, were threatened to be demolished by the construction of the Great Dam of Aswan in Egypt.  Spain provided help in saving many of Egypt's monuments and sites, and in a show of gratitude, was gifted the Temple of Debod.

The 2nd century B.C. temple was shipped to Spain and rebuilt in Madrid's Parque de la Montaña, surrounded by a small lake in a beautiful tree-lined setting.  The park is especially popular not only for this unique monument, but also for sunset views of the city.

I am taking part in Photo Friday at

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Travel With Your Kids While You Can

Taken from the Empire State Building observation deck.

Just got back from the Big Apple last night.  We met some of my German relatives there before they hit more of the U.S. and then eventually end up at our house on the West coast in a few weeks.  We had to travel without my daughter because, much to everyone's disappointment, we had to cancel her ticket in the last moment.

Why?  The answer is my big travel tip for the day:  travel with your kids as much as you can before they get to high school.  Once they're in high school, they're no longer yours.  In high school they belong to their sports, their SAT prep classes, and their part-time jobs.  My daughter is on her high school dance team, and they decided to hold a mandatory dance camp overnight the same weekend we had our trip to New York.  The word mandatory comes up a lot in high school sports . . . in other words, if you don't attend, you're not on the team.  My daughter was crushed and we missed her terribly in New York.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Photo Friday: Pastéis de Belém

These glorious little custard tarts, whose generic (plural) name is pastéis de nata, are now running a close second to my all-time favorite European pastry, the Napolean, a.k.a. mille-feuille.  The pastel de nata is an immorally delicious specialty of Portugal, confected of egg custard and a light, flaky, pastry dough.  I lost count of how many of these we sampled on our travels through Portugal this summer.

It was mandatory that we sample the pastries from many different bakeries, since I had read and heard so much about their most famous origin, Pastéis de Belém from the café of the same name in the parish of Santa Maria de Belém in Lisbon, I wanted to be sure when we got there that they really were the finest tasting.  So we began the quest in Lagos at the southern tip of Portugal, where our first bite into a pastel de nata was heavenly.  More sampling continued throughout the historical city of Évora and well into Lisbon.  Some custard fillings were better than others; some the pastry dough was lighter or flakier than others.

When we reached the blue and gold tiled Pastéis de Belém bakery shop in Lisbon where the tasty delicacy was created before the 18th century by Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery, I knew by the long line of people these tarts had earned their reputation.  We ordered a half dozen for our picnic lunch.  Luckily we didn't have to go anywhere else for the rest of our picnic food because the shop also sells other "take-away" goodies - lots of small deep fried dough balls and triangles with delicious pork and chicken fillings with names I can't remember.

Lots of goodies for sale at Pastéis de Belém

Standing in line.

We stocked up on a little of everything and walked across the street to the Jardim de Belém, a lovely park with a view of the Monument to the Discoveries, and had a most memorable picnic.  The first thing I did was take a bite out of a warm, freshly baked Pastel de Belém and prove to myself that yes, they are the best in the country of Portugal.

Our picnic food in Belém.

I am participating in Photo Friday at
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