Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Scary Europe On Halloween

The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland?  No!  It's the Quinta da Regaleira estate in Sintra, Portugal, also known as the "Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire".  A very freaky, Gothic, gargoyled, twisty-towered, dungeons-and-caves sort of place.

Can you see the hand reaching out of the stone coffin above?  That's my son being funny at the roofless Carmo Convent and Church in Lisbon.

Above, mummies at the Carmo museum.

This scary guy glares down at tourists at the Pena Palace, also in Sintra, Portugal.

A carnival costume in Venice.

Skulls at the Bone House in Hallstatt, Austria, where the residents of this small town have hand-painted and then stacked and displayed the bones of their dead since the 12th century.

My kids thought the idea of eating this fish, which was for sale at the public market in Madrid, was pretty scary.        H A P P Y   H A L L O W E E N ! ! !

Check out the Halloween tricks and treats today and tomorrow at Traci Suppa's fun blog Go Big or Go Home!  She's got one of my photos featured on Thursday - click here!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Dirndls Are Back

One of my cute cousins in Germany with a group of her young friends at the Oktoberfest last month.  I just looove that twenty-somethings over there are embracing their culture and wearing Dirndls again!

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Gypsy Caves of Sacromonte

Gorgeous facade in Granada's Sacromonte district.

A breathtaking walk from Granada's Alhambra Palace on the hill into the city below will take you through a lushly wooded park with trickling waterfalls and a number of ancient arched gates along the Cuesta de Gomerez down to the Plaza Nueva.  But for some reason we thought this path might take too long, and opted instead to take the "shortcut" recommended by a passerby.  What the passerby failed to mention was that the shortcut follows along the outer citadel wall and offers no shade.  Nada.  So we walked this much less scenic, dry, barren, pebbled path at high noon in July down the hill, across the river, and found ourselves on Carrera del Darro on the left bank of the River Darro.

The less scenic path, called Cuesta de los Chinos, or
Pebble Slope, because of its paving.

No worries though.  Carrera del Darro is a scenic old street with interesting buildings and ancient Arab remains.  And, if we hadn't landed here, we might have missed the opportunity, after rehydrating, to visit the nearby gypsy caves of Sacromonte on the outskirts of town.

The Sacromonte quarter really has only one main street, and it's easy to know when you've found it because its entrance is marked by a statue of "Churrohumo," a popular gypsy from Granada in the 1950s.  (Not sure why the patina around his crotch is buffed clean . . . )

Churrohumo awaits you on Camino del Sacromonte.

The walk up the street, Camino del Sacromonte, is fascinating, as it is lined with cave dwellings excavated from the soft white limestone rock.  These still-inhabited homes go back deep into the hills - the fronts are only facades.

The gypsies were not the first people to live in Granada's caves.  Since the 15th century, Arabs, Jews, and Oriental nomads have inhabited these underground accommodations; the gypsies simply moved into them after the Moors were expelled during Christian conquest of Spain.

Many of the structures are now flamenco clubs, in this region called zambras.  Zambra is a traditional, flamboyant gypsy flamenco dance which evolved from Moorish belly dancing.  We did not attend a show, which I understand vary significantly in quality, nor were we in the Sacromonte district at night, which has been said to not always be safe.

Zambra clubs in the Sacromonte district.

I would have loved to explore the intriguing side lanes and unusual landscape of the gypsy district even more (although preferably in cooler weather, as there is a lot of concrete in whitewashed Sacromonte), but my kids were not keen on scouting any further.  I can't say this area is especially captivating for children, I suppose.  There are outstanding views of the Alhambra complex from Sacromonte.

Terrific views of the Alhambra from the Sacromonte district in Granada.

You can stay overnight in Granada's gypsy caves if you're so inclined.  Here is a pretty looking rental offered by Veo Apartments:  Granada Apartment Sacromonte Cueva 2.  Looks like fun to me!

This is my weekly link-up post for Photo Friday at

Monday, October 22, 2012

Magical Mittenwald

Said to be one of the most charming villages in Germany, Mittenwald has so much to see and do for families with children of all ages.  We stayed there three nights in 2007 when the kids were 11 and 8 years old in a very large apartment, Haus Schaaf, run by the Müller family, for only 85€ a night at the time.

Mittenwald is known for its Lüftlmahlerei, or Lüftl art, the characteristic large painted scenes on many houses in Alpine regions.  This art dates back to the 18th century when wealthy landowners showed their wealth and status by commissioning these frescos on the facades of their homes.  There are stunning examples in Mittenwald.

The pink, frescoed clock tower of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, above, is unique in Germany and was painted to look as if it were made of marble.  Visit the extravagant rococo interior of this town landmark.

My kids were highly entertained by the icy cold creek that runs straight down through the center of the walking district in Mittenwald.

The architectural beauty of Mittenwald is even more breathtaking set against its rocky Alpine backdrop.

On the balcony of our apartment rental in Mittenwald.

Mittenwald has been acclaimed for its master violin making since the 18th century and boasts a renowned State School for Violin Making.  Many violin workshops inhabit the city and several allow visitors to watch them work.  I have listed resources for this activity in another post.

The precious town of Mittenwald is an attraction in itself, but you will also enjoy venturing a little bit outside the village.  A short distance away is the tiny Lautersee, or Lake Lauter, where you can rent small motor boats, swim, or dine on wurst and sauerkraut on the shore.

The lake was so uncrowded that the kids piloted most of the time.

An awesome hike (actually more like just a walk) designed especially for kids is nearby in the Leutasch Valley.  The Geisterklamm, or Spirit Gorge, is a well-protected trail along ancient cliffs, swirling glacier waters, and dramatic waterfalls which you can learn details about in an earlier post here.

Lots to see in the Spirit Gorge on the Austria/Germany border.

Mittenwald is about one and a half hours by train from Munich, Germany.  Why not base yourself in this charming town when visiting Bavaria and take a day trip to Munich, instead of the other way around?  You'll find the atmosphere much more relaxing and family-friendly than staying in a big city, where crowded streets and immense cathedrals may overwhelm young children.  Mittenwald is a marvelous solution to that.

The lovely town of Mittenwald in the distance.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Photo Friday: Bay Windows in Zurich

Don't you just love these decorative bay windows (called Erkerfenster in German) we spotted in Zurich?

You can see here how the streets in Zurich are lined
with cute buildings with Erkerfenster.

This is my weekly link-up post for Photo Friday at

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Family Windsurfing in Tarifa

You may be wondering about the success of our windsurfing plans in Spain and the continuing saga of the GoPro camera.  Well, the GoPro saga continued its downward spiral, but the windsurfing, I'm happy to say, was a triumph for everyone.

The GoPro camera, which was purchased by hubby before the trip to mount on his windsurfing board and get some radical footage of him shredding the water, tragically lost on its maiden voyage, and then replaced utilizing a generous discount offered by GoPro, was then - in Spain - absentmindedly left with the power on the morning before the shredding occurred, thus eliminating all hope of digital footage.  The GoPro camera spent the three weeks of our trip basically serving as dead weight in our luggage.

My son, daughter, and husband windsurfed two full days in Tarifa, Spain.  We rented a spacious apartment on the beach, about a 15 minute drive from Valdevaqueros Beach, the hottest spot for windsurfing in Europe.  Club Mistral, the German windsurfing equipment rental chain, has a large shop at Valdevaqueros Beach, and we had reserved our equipment in advance with them.  My husband has rented from Club Mistral in other locations before and has always been satisfied with their friendly staff and the quality of their equipment.  He was especially pleased with their service this time because they were very flexible, allowing the kids to change out their equipment as needed and also to add an additional day of surfing for them to his existing reservation instead of charging for a new rental.  The only mistake he felt he made was booking a pre-reservation at home before we left.  The Club Mistral website suggests doing so in case they run out of equipment, and require a 3-day minimum rental.  Upon arrival at their shop we noticed there was more than enough equipment to not have reserved in advance, so we wasted money by paying for the required three days when we only windsurfed two.

An ample amount of equipment available
at Club Mistral in Tarifa.

The first day out on the water the kids took a lesson with Jana, a cute German girl who spoke perfect English and remained out in the frigid water with them for 2 hours.  My son and daughter learned how to rig the equipment and how to carry it to the water.

Both my son and my daughter stood up on the first day and managed to sail a short distance.

Photo op at Valdevaqueros Beach in Tarifa.

What did I do while the fam was out sailing the Spanish seas?  Club Mistral has a little café with some good-looking salads and healthy fare and nice tables on the patio:

They also have big giant bean bags on the sand for relaxing.  But since we had a rental car, I just drove back to our nice apartment on the beach and napped until it was time to pick up my very tired windsurfers!

Monday, October 15, 2012

No Leche Fría

My 16 year old daughter has tasted two beverages in her life:  milk and water.  You read that right.  She has never sipped a soda, juice of any kind, iced tea, hot cocoa, or even mineral water.  We have adjusted to this oddity by bringing milk basically anywhere we go for longer than a few hours where it might not be available.

As I've blogged before, this becomes a problem for us in Europe where milk is not commonly drank as a daily - or in our family's case - obsessive beverage.  In some countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, the milk situation has improved and one can generally find good-tasting (read:  American milk-like tasting) cold milk in the supermarkets.  In other countries, one may find milk, but only what my family calls shelf milk:  unrefrigerated milk that has been highly pasteurized and tastes somewhat, well, "cheesy" as my kids like to say.  My daughter, in her desperation, can acclimatize herself to this milk, but my son will not.

Shelf milk in Spain.

Of course I was curious what kind of milk we would find in Spain and Portugal last summer.  The results were mixed.  In Seville we had no luck at all, but that was probably not due to a lack of milk, but rather to a lack of supermarkets.  The only shop we had within walking distance was a very small mini-market.  In the medium-sized town of Ronda, Spain, we found no milk at all - not in the very large Maxi Dia supermarket or any mini-market.  In Tarifa, Spain, we found cold milk at the very large, extremely busy Supermercado, but only in 1 liter containers.  Our family drinks a half a gallon at every meal, so we emptied the shelves.  Non-fat, low-fat, and whole milk were available and tasted good enough even for my son to drink.

One liter cartons of cold milk at Supermercado in Tarifa.

As in most European countries, getting a glass of tap water at a restaurant in Spain or Portugal is challenging, if not impossible.  First, you must try to explain that you don't want sparkling water.  This concept is extremely difficult for most Europeans, especially Germans, to understand.  If that has been successfully conveyed you must now attempt to convince them that you don't want bottled still water.  You want it from the tap - der Leitungshahn, de grifo, le robinet.  It rarely works, no matter how hard you try.  You'll almost always receive, and have to pay for, bottled water.  In a restaurant in Malaga the waiter tried to tell us the water in Spain is not drinkable, yet we'd been drinking it for weeks.  My advice is to bring your own bottle of tap water - no restaurant in Europe that I've been to has ever objected to that.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Photo Friday: Granada at Night

There were some things we liked about Granada, Spain, and some things we didn't.  Watching night fall on the city from up at the Alhambra was something we loved.

This post is part of Photo Friday at

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Thanks for the Review!

Many thanks to Mary Turner, author of the travel blog Travel With Teens and Tweens, for featuring my blog post My Teenager's First Solo Flight in her Reviews & Resources for Family Travel Planners this week!  Check out her plentiful advice on family traveling in the U.S. as well as to exotic international destinations on her top-rated blog.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The City of Granada, Spain

Downtown Granada.

We did not get the best impression of the city of Granada, Spain.  Don't get me wrong - the Alhambra in Granada is phenomenal, but the Alhambra is an isolated little village atop the city of Granada and you can spend your entire stay up there if you want to without delving into the city below.  Which is almost what we did, since we stayed at the lovely Hotel América inside the Alhambra walls, but we trekked downtown into the city one afternoon to check it out.

My first reaction while in the taxi into town was sad disappointment over all the graffiti.  Probably more than I've seen in any other European city.  The calamity is stupendous as there is graffiti on many of the historical monuments.  We started our self-guided walk through the city at the Plaza Nueva, located at a very busy intersection of cars, taxis, and buses.  Walking a short distance, at the corner of the two main streets, Calle Reyes Católicos and Gran Via de Colón, we came to the large Plaza Isabel La Católica where Queen Isabella sits in bronze with Christopher Columbus at her feet, granting him permission to seek the New World in 1492.

I like how the sidewalk along the boulevard is extra wide for pedestrians and paved with attractive checkerboard tiles.

Very close to Plaza Isabel is, as can be found in the center of most European cities, the Cathedral.  Construction of this grand cathedral began in 1523 atop the site of a mosque and took 181 years to complete.  It is an enormous structure, but nevertheless a little bit confusing to navigate around the exterior.  How so?  Just look at the photo below - the Granada Cathedral is entirely overbuilt.

Shops, buildings, and kiosks abut the Cathedral such that you never quite know if you're still within the perimeter of the church, and there is no plaza or square in which to stand and take a wide shot of the whole structure.  The best photos I could get are from very up close.

Stalls abut the Granada Cathedral.

After some searching we found the small entrance to purchase admission (4€) to enter the Cathedral.  Only my daughter and I considered the admission price worth it, so we toured inside.  It is a magnificent masterpiece of Spanish Renaissance style in gold and white, with a grand altar and many chapels.

Sanctuary of the Granada Cathedral.

There is also a free bathroom inside, once you've paid admission.

What was most disorienting for us however, was trying to find the Royal Chapel (Capilla Real).  Granada's Royal Chapel is one of the city's top 5 attractions and it is located directly behind the Cathedral.  But, like I said, it's hard to know where one building begins and the other ends among the maze of stonework.  It wasn't until I got on my computer and looked it up back at the hotel that I realized these photos I took were of the Royal Chapel:

We did eventually find the entrance with the admission price of another 4€ per person.  At that point we were either too tired from searching, too hot from walking, or it was just too late, I can't remember, but we didn't go in.  I regret it now.  King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are buried in the Royal Chapel, and there is an extensive exhibit of artwork from Queen Isabella's collection.

I guess the combination of traffic, graffiti, crowded architecture, confusion, and summer heat added up to a less than favorable impression of downtown Granada.  Earlier in the day we had strolled through the outer quarters of town, the Albaicin district and the Sacromonte gypsy quarter and I loved the distinctiveness of both these districts.  The white limestone gypsy caves are fascinating.  I also liked The Artisan's Market in town - a narrow alley of Moroccan-style shops that make you feel like you just set foot in Marrakesh.  The little red mini-buses that take you around town for 1.20€ per person are convenient, too.

Gypsy caves in the Sacromonte district of Granada.

At the end of the day we headed back up to the Albaicin to Mirador de San Nicolas, or viewpoint of St. Nicolas, for its one-of-a-kind view of the Alhambra.  This small square in front of the old church of St. Nicolas is especially popular for sunset views of the Alhambra and can get very crowded at dusk.  It's lovely though, and street musicians add to the ambiance by playing flamenco guitar under the trees.  We decided the evening was worth a little refinement and opted to sit and enjoy a drink below the mirador. The evening and sunset were unforgettable.

Sunset on the Alhambra.
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