March 5  8:00am

Still singing, or just humming?  Here begins another of my road trip journals.  My own daily music now has a bass section that sounds like 15 year old complaining, and a tenor section of 11 year old whining, but the higher ranges, which dominate, are mostly oohs and ahs for the beautiful sights along the way.

This road trip began with a sad, but not too sad, good-bye to Rome and a fun weekend in the Castelli Romani, namely Marino, with our friends the Morrises.  Saturday, it could have been summer!  The temperature was in the 70s (!) and there were teenagers out in their tee-shirts and spaghetti straps.  On our way to the Morrises we had to pass right by the St. Paul’s Outside the Walls Church.  The third time was the charm and this time Gerry Sr. and I got out of the car to visit it.  It’s huge!

Sunday, with the Morrises we went to a park in which there are ruins of the ancient town of Tuscolum.  There wasn’t much to see and we couldn’t get in very close, but they have uncovered a small theater and part of the center of the town.  The views from the hill are beautiful.  The town was located on a ridge at the top of a mountain and you look down on all sides.

Monday, we officially started out on our trip to Spain, driving north.  Our first stop, for lunch, was Orvieto. (My original plan had us going to Assisi.)  What a pleasant surprise we found!  Yes, the Duomo is impressive and beautiful, just as it was 25 years ago when I saw it the first time, though I did not remember it as quite so beautiful as I found it yesterday.  We had another of those glorious spring days, temperature hovering near 70 again and not a cloud in the sky!  The town was clean and filled with pottery shops and shop I did!  I was thrilled to find new dishes (something I had been hoping to buy on the trip) as well as lots of gifts for family and friends.  Our car was parked just to the side of the Duomo piazza and from the car park was the most wonderful view down into the valley below – including vineyards, sheep, farms and even a castle!

Driving from Orvieto to Siena, we decided to forego the autostrada for the Via Cassia.  It was hard on the driver, because the road wound around a bit and being just two lanes, he couldn’t keep a constant, much less fast, pace but it was very scenic.  Even Gerry Jr. occasionally looked up from his And 1 DVD to say “Ooh.  Nice!” It has rained recently and the countryside is in the full bloom of spring.  The green is the green of new growth, splashed with the bright yellow of flowering mimosas, and dotted from time to time with pink and white flowers of trees as yet unidentified.  Under the vines are carpets of white flowers (probably clover) and looking closely in the grass you find violets, crocuses, buttercup-like flowers, little wild daisies and some tiny little blue flowers.  Everything is so alive and colorful.

Our destination for this first night out was a “wine castle” or castello in the Chianti region called Castello della Paneretta.  This is the first agri-tourism (agriculture/tourism) place we have stayed, and it is wonderful.  The hotel is in a vineyard, and our rooms are part of an apartment with a living room and 3 bedrooms.  We have a huge terrace out the front, suspended over a valley of vineyards.  Picturesque?  Bet on it!  Plus, the place is decorated in a very warm and rustic fashion, with bunches of dried flowers everywhere.  Outside are a multitude of containers with all kinds of succulents.  This is a great place to return to, especially as a base for exploring this whole region between Rome and Florence.

Dinner last night was prepared for us by the owner and her husband.  All the guests (there were four men from Rome staying also) were seated at one table with the host and hostess … Fortunately, we all spoke varying degrees of English, Italian and Spanish so there was no trouble communicating.  The kids were down on one end and a little left out, but considering some of the conversation, that was just as well.  Dinner was good:  a bruschetta of prosciutto with orange zest, gnocchi with tomatoes, polenta with wild boar, vin santo and biscotti and lots of the wine produced here, a Chianti Classico Castello della Paneretta.

 

March 9   10:00am

On the road it is harder to be able to sit and write, much less publish, so I find myself always describing events of the past days. Perhaps not the best situation for recording events in detail, but it forces me to be brief, which some of the younger readers of my journal feel would be a major improvement!

Tuesday morning, the owner of the Castello della Paneretta took Oscar, Gerry and me on a tour of the farm.  It is a very interesting story which I hope to write about separately.  Suffice it to say here that the grounds and fields of the castello were beautiful and quintessentially Tuscan.  The castle was magnificent.

We left there about noon and went to San Gimignano, another medieval Tuscan town, and had lunch and did a little exploring.  After Orvieto, it wasn’t as exciting as most people find it.  This is definitely an area to return to though:  There is so much to see and do.  I think that Oscar liked it because he was quite involved, having participated in the tour.  Gerry Jr. however had nothing but disdain, comparing it to the Cotswolds (his idea of purgatory). He’s definitely a city boy!

Tuesday night we arrived in Parma.  Another of Oscar’s and Gerry’s counselors from RAC is studying there and our plans were to visit him.  Tim met us there also so there was a bit of a RAC reunion.  Tyler was studying and had commitments, so we visited Parma’s tourist sites in the morning.  The boys went off with Tim to the internet cafe and Gerry Sr. and I went to see the art museum.  It was very thoughtfully planned, though somewhat over the top architecturally!  At least the paintings were displayed very well.  An awful lot of Madonnas!  Even I had seen enough.

Wednesday night we all had dinner together.  That was very fun for the kids.  Thursday, the four of us and Tim drove down to Modena to see the Ferrari factory.  I found it much less interesting than I thought I would, but the four males ate their hearts out drooling over the cars.  We had a nice lunch in the old part of town and saw a little of the 3-star Duomo (but just the outside) before going to a visit to an acetaio, or vinegar (balsamico) producer.  That’s another interesting subject that I hope to write about separately.

Back in Parma for the evening, Tyler’s host family had invited us for what turned out to be a supper (excellent!).  Ana, the host mother and Aldo, the host father, were exceptionally nice to us and we enjoyed an evening speaking our halting Italian (my case) and Span-italian (in Gerry’s case).  The RAC men wrote postcards to Bob and Sue and exchanged stories, too.

Friday, we finally faced facts and said good-bye to Italy, but not before a lovely waterside lunch in Rapallo.  It was another of the gorgeous days we have come to expect in Italy, and all the restaurants along the quay had their outside seating set up to take advantage of the weather.  It was lovely and relaxing to sit in the sun and eat fresh fish!  The coastline in this part of Italy and into France is dramatic cliffs that drop precipitously into dark blue water, and the highway is an unending series of tunnels through the rock.  Each time we emerged from a tunnel, new gorges and panoramas appeared.  We got off the highway near Monte Carlo, but were foiled by the narrow winding streets and couldn’t get to a place where we could stop and get out of the car.  We continued a little farther to just west of Monaco, finding an adequate hotel for our explorations.

 

March 15  10:00am

As I write this morning, I am looking out onto a vine covered patio of an ancient stone house in St. Maximin near Uzes, France.  This has been our base for the last few days for exploring the western parts of Provence, including Avignon Aix-en-Provence, St. Remy in Provence and Les Baux.  We got here via a leisurely trip down the French Riviera that began basically where I left off last.

Our first hotel, on Friday (3/8) night was in a little town called Eze Bord du Mer.  Being here out of season means that we have the place to ourselves though the weather is fantastic.  Eze Bord du Mer has this quaint name to distinguish it from Eze Village and Eze du Col.  Our town was at the water’s edge, Eze Village is at the top of a precipice, and Eze du Col is on top of the main mountain above both of the other two.  At night, from the beach, the ramparts of Eze Village are floodlit to quite dramatic effect.

Visiting Eze Village on Saturday (3/9) we had our lunch on the terrace of a hotel that looked down to where our hotel is on the beach.  The view takes in all that is the Riviera at this point:  Lemon trees in extensive greenhouses; sharp, dramatic cliffs; sparkling, calm waters; sun-filled bays; lush, green palms and shrubs.  In this area, you cannot see the big resort areas or Monaco and Monte Carlo.  You can see lots of biggish houses (though I expected more, bigger ones) and middle-ish houses, some with pools, that dot the mountainsides.  Where the houses are closer together, you can assume there is a village area, but it is by no means crowded.

That contrasts sharply with Monaco and Monte Carlo.  On that little strip of land, all told no bigger than Central Park in NYC, there are towering condominiums, seemingly built on every square inch of land (rock really), vying with the mountain for the supremacy of man over nature. Sounds awful but it is really quite nice – very clean and orderly, and everyone seems to get a view of the water, which is unbelievably beautiful.  This area is famous for its beaches and coastline for a very good reason!

Back to Eze Village for a moment…I did some shopping.  The town is old and medieval, and the streets are very narrow and wind up and down.  It is incredible how these villages grew up on the top of these mountains and still manage to retain all their charm.  No cars for one thing.  One of the cutest adaptations we saw to a pedestrian lifestyle was a stable with two burros in it at the beginning of the town.  Above their stable was a sign saying “Hotel  XYZ Baggage Handlers”.  I wonder if they actually use them for that…It’s conceivable!

We really enjoyed exploring this whole area by car, driving along the Moyenne Corniche (the middle of three roads that goes along the coast and said to be the most beautiful road in France!) and the Basse Corniche, the lowest of the three that goes along the coast at water level.  (The highest one is would be called the Haute Corniche, I guess, but we didn’t see any signs for it and I think it maybe the auto-route.)  We drove south as far as Nice and took a nice long walk on the boardwalk, admiring the beach, the bathers, the other strollers and the view of the Promenade des Anglaises.  We, and most other people, were in t-shirts and the sun was very warm and inviting.  There were actually people in the water swimming, though I felt that was taking it a bit too far.

Saturday night we drove into Monaco/Monte Carlo for dinner.  The place does not hop!  I don’t think I have ever seen a big city so quiet on a Saturday night.  It may have something to do with the average age of the inhabitants, or that there are more avid gamblers than one would think and all in the Casino.

Sunday we had another gorgeous day and did some more exploring. This time we went to St. Jean Cap Ferrat where we visited the Ephrussi de Rothschild Foundation, a beautiful mansion and gardens.  Though the house was interesting and we had a very scenic lunch looking out over the water, it smacked of a spoiled rich girl’s plaything.  The gardens were more interesting and revealed a real passion for plants and landscaping.  There were 10 or so themed gardens (Spanish Garden, Rose Garden, Italian Garden, etc.) as well as the huge terrace garden that set off the house.  From everywhere there were views of the bays and the water surrounding the peninsula.

In the afternoon we went into Monaco again, this time to walk around and get a feel for the city.  We visited the museum of antique cars of the Prince of Monaco, which I found infinitely more interesting than the Ferrari experience of Modena.  I was alone in that though!  For the “men” this was just background material for what was really significant about Monaco:  That everyone seems to have a very ritzy-titzy car!  We also climbed up to the palace and visited the big square in front of it (More fancy cars, modern ones).

Now it was time to pick up Tim at the railway station – and what an adventure it turned out to be, too!  Gerry and I dropped Oscar and Gerry off at a sign that said “Access to Monte Carlo/Monaco Railway Station” to go find Tim.  A half hour later, I went to look for them.  What a surprise!  “Access” gives you no idea of exactly how far away from the railway station you are!  Remember I told you that the city was built into rock?  The access was via tunnels through the rock to the station which was tunneled into the rock and which had exits on three (at least) different levels of the mountain…We couldn’t find Tim!  As it turned out, he had not been able to call us for lack of a phone card, but after an hour and a half we finally found him, exhausted from walking up and down, all over Monte Carlo with his back pack!

We took him on a driving tour of Monte Carlo by night and then up to Eze Village to see the view by night, before we went to home to dinner and bed.

Monday (3/11) was Gerry Jr.’s birthday so he got to be a king-for-a-day, sort of!  We went to the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium in Monte Carlo, which was excellent.  We had lunch on the roof terrace in the beautiful sunshine that marked every day of our stay on the Riviera.  In the afternoon we drove along the coast to Cannes, where we took another walk on the beach before continuing to a place called Agay.  Oscar had requested that we stay in a little beach town for his birthday…

The drive to Agay took us through some spectacular scenery, though quite different from the mountains and beach we had seen until now.  These new mountains were made of red (yes, red) stone.  You can only imagine the red rock against the blue sky framed by the dark green foliage…Colors you’d never expect to find in Nature!  We experienced the additional artistic effect of seeing it all by the setting sun.

Agay is another quiet town.  Absolutely nothing was open to have dinner and we had to drive all the way in to St. Raphael to have Gerry’s birthday dinner – Thai food!

Tuesday morning we awoke to more strains of “Happy Birthday,” this time to celebrate Oscie’s 12th.  He baptized the day, along with Tim and Gerry Jr. by going swimming in the sea!  It was cold but after the first plunge, they all went in for a second round!  We thought the day would take us to St. Tropez and so we headed in that direction.  Not quite there, we were side-tracked by a pre-teen desire to play miniature golf, which we indulged, it belonging to the birthday boy. But from there we had to high-tail it here to Uzes, a drive of almost 3 hours.  We had made the arrangements to rent this little house for 4 nights, so we could change all our clothes, do some laundry and sightsee without a car full of suitcases.

The house is quite cute – unusual in both layout and decoration!  Gerry Sr. and I climb a circular staircase (reminiscent of some of the stairs we have seen in medieval castles, right down to the worn depressions from ages of footsteps in the same place!) to our loft room under the eaves.  The children climb a separate staircase to their sleeping alcoves at a somewhat lower level but still up over the kitchen and living room.  The bathrooms have curtains instead of doors, but that seems to work perfectly.  All in all we’ve been quite cozy.

Unfortunately, right now there is a thunderstorm raging outside.  The lights are flickering and I have had to interrupt this writing to go and attend to the several leaks that have sprung upstairs!

From here, on Wednesday we went to Avignon.  We went to see the Palais du Papes and were all under-whelmed.  We also visited St. Benezet’s Bridge, though the significance of why God spoke to him and told him to build a bridge escapes me completely.

Thursday, we drove back to Aix-en-Provence where we knew we would have to say good-bye to Tim again and perhaps for the last time on this trip.  He’s off to Paris and Amsterdam from here.  We had a delicious lunch together and then left him with a friend from home.

Sad, (expressed as crabby and angry, respectively in our two sons) we had a difficult afternoon.  We walked the guidebook’s tour of Aix, but rather joylessly, and headed back towards Uzes within an hour.  We foreswore the auto-route this trip and headed back via a smaller road.  Our itinerary took us through St. Remy-en-Provence and we side tripped from there to Les Baux.

Les Baux is another of these medieval hill towns that by now you have figured out that I have a penchant for.  This one was abandoned in 1631.  Obviously the views from the top were spectacular – don’t I always say so?  However, from the ruined ramparts of this town the valley below was so beautiful!  Farms neatly cut out of the landscape, planted with trees (olives, most likely) and newly-tilled fields (it being spring!).  The colors were really pretty!  On the other side were the eroded peaks that inspired Dante’s description of Hell and bear the name “Val d’Enfer.” The castle was built into the sandstone rock of the peak, and augmented with blocks of stone.  From the top, the wind really howled.  It didn’t seem like a very comfortable place to live…and it must have been awful in the winter.  Still, today it is quite a picturesque place and I am very glad we took the time to see it.

 

March 16  8:30am

Yesterday was only the second really stormy day we have had on this trip – the first being the gale in the North Sea that sent us out on our cruise.  It was quite a storm!  Thunder crashing and rain pouring down!  And in the house,too, as it turned out.  We had three leaks, one of which Oscar described as “like a hose.”  Water also came in under the door.  Funny that even with the water dripping into pans all over the house, this little place still felt snug and cozy.

We stayed in most of the morning.  I was catching up on my journal and the others were mostly just relaxing and relishing doing “not much” during the storm.  About noon we went out to visit the Musee du Bonbon, the Haribo Candy company exhibit.  First, we had lunch in Uzes, dodging rain drops both coming and going.  The Musee was quite interesting.  As we would say in a game we play “It exceeded my expectations.” I learned quite a bit about how candy is made and we saw some of the machines in action.  The kids were more interested in trying the candy, but I think they learned something, too. The theme song is quite catchy!

Afterwards we came home and Oscar and I studied vocabulary while Gerry worked on his Biology test.  It is a good thing that they studied so hard those last two weeks in Rome.  During these weeks of travel we accomplish close to nothing.

 

March 21   7:00pm

We left Uzés on the day I last wrote and drove south to Nîmes.  What a nice town!  We wanted to see some of the structures associated with the Pont du Gard aqueduct. We managed to see the Fountain of the Source (by car) which is where all the water from the aqueduct pours out into this beautiful series of pools.  We saw the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple that is perfectly intact, and we saw the Roman amphitheater – still in use 2000 years later!  It even has a covering to keep out the cold of winter (which was unfortunately still up!).  The amphitheater is used for concerts and other events, with modern seating erected right on the Roman stones.

From Nîmes we drove to Arles where we spent the night.  Arles, too, has a 2000 year old Roman amphitheater still in use – this one for bullfights.  I was not aware that bull fighting is a big sport in this part of France and we were just a week short of the opening of the season.  Here in France Carnivale is celebrated the week leading up to Palm Sunday so we had a chance to compare the costumes of Italy to those of Southern France.  On Sunday morning, Gerry and I took a walk around the town and discovered an assembly of the folks in traditional Arlessian costumes.  Apparently, we were going to miss quite a day of festivities.

From Arles we drove south into the region called the Camargue.  This is a very picturesque area of marshes, with small white horses that run free, black horned bulls, lots of birds, and Provence style cowboys.  The huge expanse of flat marshes and water were yet another of the many different landscapes we have seen in our trip through Provence.  The wealth of beautiful scenery must be what called so many artists and writers to this area.

One of the biggest surprises in the Camargue turned out to be flamingoes!  This is one of their natural breeding grounds and we saw them out in the marshes, just like that!  I have never seen a flamingo except in a zoo.  We stopped for a walk in a place called The Saint Marys by the Sea, supposedly the burial place of two of the Marys (including Mary Magdalene) from the story of Jesus.  All of this is contained in a national park, which also has a bird sanctuary along the road out.  We stopped there and took a nice long (some might say too long) walk through the paths of the sanctuary hoping to see some unusual birds.  The sanctuary is chock full of flamingoes, which for me, despite the fact that they were not caged or in any way constrained to stay there, was a little like seeing them in a zoo.  However, we did see a few of them in flight, and that was an interesting sight!  Their bodies are stretched out to the full length of their necks and heads when they fly (they don’t bend their necks like great blue herons do) and they really look like arrows with their wings spread.

From the Camargue, we detoured northward again late Sunday so that we could see the Grotte des Demoiselles, a cave of stalagmites and stalactites said to be one of the most impressive in the world, the following day.  It was quite amazing and considering the physical effort we put in to see it, that was a good thing. The cable car that takes one to the top was out of order and we had to go up on foot.  Gerry Jr. said he hated it, partly I suppose from the climb up to the entrance and partly because the explanation was only in French and we couldn’t really catch a lot.  The cave was immense and the quality of the formations impressive, but Gerry’s attitude unfortunately affected the rest of us a little.

Heading back south we went to Carcassonne, arriving Monday evening.  Carcassonne is a medieval city that has been completely restored.  The restoration took place back in 1770, so you know that even then people realized what a treasure it was and didn’t exploit it just for commercial reasons like they would have today.  The defenses really impressed Oscar:  The city has two sets of walls, both mounted by towers.  At one point it stood on the border of Spain and France and was a very strategic fortress for defending French soil.

By night, the city is floodlit and very suggestive.  The newer town has not grown around the old town, but rather sits across the river from it.  There is a small borough of a contemporary town at the foot of the hills, but nothing obscures your view of the fortified town on the top.  It sits all alone, majestically crowning the hill, appearing as it must have 500 years ago (though without the floodlights!).

Tuesday morning, we visited the town carefully, checking out the castle and the church, both of which date from the 12th century, though there are remains in the walls and the church that date from the 4th C.  We walked the ramparts and circled the town between the two walls, and generally fell under its spell.  Apparently in the summer months it is more crowded than Disneyland, so we were thankful to see it in the off season, with only 10 or so busloads of other tourists.

Driving down towards the Spanish border, we made a little side trip near Perpignan to visit a museum dedicated to early humans.   About 30 years ago, anthropologists found a human skull and some remains attesting to the existence of early humans in this area.  This part of southern France is fairly near the area which encompasses Lascaux, the site of some of the most famous cave paintings from pre-history.  The skeleton found here is called “Tautaval man,” for Tautaval, the town nearby.  (We nicknamed Gerry Jr. “Toot-a-smell Man” for reasons I need not explain.)

The museum was good, but we were forced to see it in about 2/3 of the time it needed, since we arrived just an hour before closing.  I liked looking at the tools that were found in the cave where they found the skull.  There were actually many different kinds of tools for different types of work.  Someday, I would like to be able to try to use tools like those.  The anthropologists believe that Tautaval man was a Cro-Magnon, an early human who had not yet discovered the use of fire, dating about 450,000 years ago.  Unfortunately, the displays were all in French, so it was hard to get the kids to focus.  Harder still because the audio-guides made noises like the light sabers in Star Wars and that was infinitely more interesting to them!

That afternoon we finally drove off to Spain and crossed the border – something Gerry Jr. had been looking forward to for weeks.  Why?  I don’t know exactly, but I suspect it has something to do with a basketball game we are going to see tonight!

 

March 22  7:30am

Crossing into Spain was full of conflicting sensations.  We all felt a little of the same sense of loss we have felt as we have left each country for a new one…Loss of the familiar for something as yet unknown.  An apprehension about the unknown dogs us also. Still, hovering around us too is the sense of adventure and discovery. History and geography conspire to make the transition easier this time, as this part of Spain and the part of France we just left have a common heritage and roots in a common language.

Language transitions have been one of the best tension breakers of all of our border crossings!  You would think that Spain would be easy – after all, we all speak Spanish.  But it isn’t easy to remember to say “Buenos dias!” when for the past two weeks you have been trying to remember to say “Bon jour!” because for the previous two months it was “Buon giorno!” every morning.  I, especially, seem to have a language soup brewing steadily.  We always laugh at each other when we speak the wrong language.

Our first stop in Spain was Girona, a lovely, very Mediterranean city.  We spent Wednesday morning touring the city a little on foot and saw the “Arab Baths” (for their style, not their provenance), the cathedral (Spanish Gothic) and many quiet parks and stone streets.  We had a nice lunch, too, under a shady portico in an historic plaza. (I had cannelloni with pureed cod that was just divine!)

Then it was, and “finally!” for some people, off to Barcelona.  We were tired when we arrived on Wednesday afternoon and spent the afternoon in the hotel despite the fact that it was a brilliant day outside.  Just too much traveling and sightseeing in the last week, even I felt like I needed to just do nothing.  Gerry Jr. didn’t feel well but he slept it off, so perhaps that was his way of saying he needed a break, too.

Wednesday night we met up with Laurel, our friend from Treviso.  She flew in for the basketball game.  We had an abundant dinner together and met Mike afterwards for a brief hello.

Thursday, the four of us and Laurel all bought tickets for the tourist bus (the hop-on-hop-off kind you find in big cities) and spent the day seeing Barcelona.  It was a shirt-sleeves sort of day, picture perfect for being outside.  We are all quite taken with this city.  I like it because it is quite clean, has lots of green spaces and trees, a multitude of interesting things to see and really diverse and lovely architecture.  The people are very friendly to us, perhaps because we speak Spanish and aren’t from Madrid…

The bus took us to all kinds of places that I will probably describe at a later time when we actually visit them.  What we stopped to visit yesterday were the Passeig de Grácia, which has a number of Moderniste (Spanish Art Nouveau) buildings and the Sagrada Familia.  This year, 2002, has been designated the “International” Year of Gaudí (I don’t know about the international) and so there are many exhibits and books about his work.  Some of his buildings, which are private, have also been opened to the public.  We decided not to see some of the lesser known ones inside on this trip, saving that for our May return.  We did take the time to visit the Sagrada Familia though, and that was quite enjoyable.  Even Oscar and Gerry paid close attention to the explanation of the building in the guidebooks.  It is quite remarkable, whether you like it or not.

Laurel left us here, to rest up for the game, and we finished our bus ride, mentally checking off the places we might come in the future.  We arrived back at the hotel at 6:00.  Refreshed and excited, we met Laurel at 7:30 to go to the basketball game.  Her husband’s Benetton Treviso team was playing a Euro-league game against Barcelona. The stadium was packed, and I think there were a grand total of 10 people there not rooting for Barcelona.  The fans were loud!  Despite dominating for most of the game, our team lost by one point, with a 3-point shot at the buzzer.  We were stunned, to say the least.  It was a very exciting game though and we enjoyed it thoroughly!

We got to have a couple of VIP moments behind the scenes to say good-bye to Mike. We met some of his and Laurels friends from the bigger basketball world (NBA), scouts who were there watching players who might get drafted this year… That must have been great for Gerry Jr. since Laurel even mentioned to one of them that Gerry had played basketball in Italy…I’ll have to talk that over with him today.

 

March 23 5:30 pm

Our second full day in Barcelona, we rode the tourist bus again.  We bought the two day passes since the second day was only an additional 4 euros (18 euros for both days).  The bus is a slow way to get around because it makes two loops but only in one direction, so you have to ride all over the city to get back to where you started.  The other thing is that the bus has no commentary about the city, just a description of what you can do at each stop.

Anyway, our first hop-off was the Olympic Stadium.  The grounds up there – the plazas and buildings, fountains and sculptures are truly impressive.  It is so hard to get used to the scale!  One of the most dramatic features is a telecommunications tower, a very futuristic sculpture, said to be an “athlete” – which is a bit hard to imagine!

Hopping back on the bus, we rode to the zoo – the children’s choice as you can guess.  It was a beautiful day to be outside, and I always love a zoo, so it was a wonderful couple of hours.  The highlight of the zoo is an albino gorilla.  He is very strange looking…White fur, pink skin, blue eyes…The zoo has some other albino animals too – primarily snakes.  They also have two of the fattest snakes I have ever seen.  One was bigger around than Oscar, the other just about his size, 10 and 15 feet long respectively.

Probably the highlight of the zoo trip was the dolphin show.  The show itself was what you’d expect, but what made it special was sharing it with more than 600 people under the age of 10!  Their squeals of delight at everything the dolphins did was so cute.  The kids were all there on school field trips, sitting in the uniforms with their teachers.  Most looked to be 5 or 6 years old.

Hopping on the bus again, we hopped off at the Bari Gotic (Barrio Gotico) or the oldest part of the city, where we walked a bit.  We saw the cathedral and wended our way through the streets to La Rambla – the main promenade.  It was filled with people doing just as we were, walking and people watching.  There are pet vendors along the central walk, so we cooed over the bunnies and chicks and guinea pigs.  Arriving at the Plaza Catalunya, we hopped back on out bus and headed homeward.

For the evening’s activity we headed out at about 8:00 and headed toward the Palacio Nacional, which is just up and above a wide avenue that opens from the Plaza de Espana, where our hotel is.  We had heard that there was a display of light and sound on Friday evenings.  What a wonderful surprise we found!  There is certainly a display of light and sound, choreographed with the huge fountain at the base of the hill where the Palacio Nacional is.  It was absolutely beautiful – like fireworks- but much better.  We even took some videos.

Afterwards, we treated ourselves to dinner at a restaurant called Orotava, recommended to us by Jorge from St. John’s.  It was wonderful.  We left Barcelona this morning, all of us in love with it.

Our drive here to Zaragoza was very pretty, too.  The geography is quite distinct from what we have seen so far and it varies greatly.  At times the soil was red and at times almost grey, with the usual sandy and brown mixed in for good measure.  There were many vineyards and orchards of trees that had already bloomed and were now leafing out.  One particularly beautiful stretch had an orchard of light green trees with a carpet of purple flowers beneath and all over the surrounding fields!

 

March 27 9:00am

An evening walk in Zaragoza took us through the main sites of the city – the Plaza del Pilar and the Seo.  The Plaza del Pilar is a long, fountain strewn open space in front of the facade of the cathedral of the Virgen del Pilar.  The church is strange because the facade is on the long side, instead of the short side, and the entrances are at either edge.  In the center is something that looks like it might be a “facade” proper, but without doors?  Very unusual.  Inside, the space is oriented as if the facade were on the short side, and the ceiling is studded with cupolas and arches.  Of course, the main attraction of the cathedral is in the space behind the altar.  This is the shrine of the Virgin del Pilar herself.  From what I could gather, the Virgin appeared in Zaragoza on a column at some moment during the 700 years that the Moors occupied Spain.

The Seo is the church of the bishop, whose seat (seo) was here for centuries.  This church is unusual, too, looking decidedly Moorish outside, it is decidedly Spanish inside – chirrigueresque, I think, is the adjective.  Also, the church is square, rather than rectangular, and the congregation sits on a raised platform in the center of the space, looking like the choir, and the chapels for the rites are along the outside walls.

The fun of Zaragoza, we found, was just being outside in the plaza.  There were tons of people around because the first of the Holy Week processions was in progress.  This is a two-hour procession from one church to the “Pilarica.”  We saw the procession twice, coming and going, the second time so that the kids could watch.  It was interesting.  The processioners wear these robes and hoods that look like those that the KKK wears.  The difference is that these hoods are various colors.  Apparently, the hoods cover the faces until Easter Sunday, when they are thrown back.

There are various “noise” making instruments used by the different groups; each group is from a particular parish and all have the same instrument.  There were many drums, as well as trumpets, a strange cross shaped instrument with a crank, and another instrument with two wooden hammers that you shake.  I read that the processions swell in size as Easter approaches, with the culmination on Easter Sunday of almost 3500 drums!  I would have loved to see that!

We had dinner on Saturday night in this incredibly busy and lively place!  Very fun.

Sunday was Palm Sunday.  Gerry Sr. and I went out early to see what was up and picked up our palms (actually olive branches).  In the Plaza, there were hoards of people selling palms, olive branches, rosemary, etc.  We visited the shrine of the Virgin of the Pillar.  People were gathering in the square already because there was another procession, like that of the night before, to coincide with the noon mass.  We picked up the kids and walked through the crowds, finally settling in a cafe to people watch.  Can you believe that Gerry Jr. and I counted 5 sets of twins!

We left Zaragoza without seeing the Palm Sunday Parade.  The crowds were too thick and the wait another hour and a half before it got to the square.  We headed off for Madrid.

Our apartment here in Madrid (for just the eight days that we are in the city) is in an apartment hotel and very comfortable. It is similar to the place we stayed in Amsterdam, but much nicer.  We spent Sunday evening and Monday just exploring, getting the laundry done, grocery shopping and studying.  In the afternoon we went into the center and I did some shopping.  I really needed to replace two of my pairs of pants…

Tuesday (yesterday) we caught the sightseeing bus near here and rode it into the center.  We did a fair share of riding and walking in the area around the Plaza Mayor, the Palacio Nacional and the Gran Via.  The kids spent some time at the internet cafe and we had a nice lunch, with musical accompaniment, in the Plaza Mayor.  Having gone out early, we came home about 5:30 and studied in the evening (not with great success).

 

April 31   9:00pm

Tonight is our last night in Madrid proper.  Tomorrow we move to our apartment in Villalba, a city about 40 km from the center of Madrid.  We won’t have a telephone there to connect to the internet.  Updates to the site may be sporadic from here forward, depending on whether we find an internet cafe where we can connect our computers…

This week in Madrid has been sort of quiet – a quiet partially forced upon us by Holy Week.  Here, everything was closed on Thursday, as well as Friday and Sunday.  We were caught without any groceries and ended up having to eat out both at lunch and dinner.  But, we had our wonderful weather all week.

Wednesday, we rode the sightseeing bus again, having purchased for two days.  We rode it down to the Puerta del Sol and picked up the historical line there.  The truth is that the 3 lines cover a lot of the same ground and two days are not necessary to see everything.  The second day is just an additional 2 euros, so it seemed worth it for the transportation value – the metro each way per person is almost a euro anyway.  We also did some walking.  Looking for Plaza Santa Ana, we walked around in circles for a while, seeing some neighborhoods that aren’t on the tour!  We did manage to make it to the plaza by evening and enjoy a tapas dinner.  The plaza unfortunately is under construction so much of its color and character weren’t readily visible.

Thursday we studied and spent a quiet afternoon at home.  Friday, we studied again in the morning and then went out to see the Botanical Gardens in the afternoon.  The gardens were quite pretty with all the tulips and daffodils, flowering trees and shrubs.  There were many people out enjoying them, too.  As we headed home, we could see the crowds gathering for the Good Friday procession, but we were too tired to wait for it to start.  We did end up watching some of it on TV and it was just as well we didn’t wait to watch it in person.  I took several hours to complete.

Saturday we met some new friends, Carlos and Mery Berendero, who helped us to find our apartment near Madrid for the next month.  We spent a lovely morning walking in the area near the Palacio Real and having lunch right near the Teatro Real.  After lunch we dropped the kids off at the hotel and went by car to Villalba to see the apartment and meet the owners.  I think it is going to be great!  The apartment is big and there are playgrounds in the center of the building complex that include a soccer field and a tennis court.  Carlos and Mery have a basketball court at their building, which is just a block away, and (!!) a basketball playing 17 year old.  We’re hoping that he and Gerry can find time to play a bit together.

Today, Easter Sunday, we didn’t do much either.  We went out early to play some basketball (I watched) at the court at the end of the road.  Gerry, Gerry, and Oscar met a fellow there willing to play and they played a bit too much 2 on 2.  The three of them were dead when we got home, putting in jeopardy our plans to go out in the afternoon.  In fact, Gerry Jr. ended up staying at home, while Gerry Sr., Oscar and I took the metro to the Parque de Retiro – the big Central Park-like park in central Madrid.  It was a gorgeous day to be in the park.  Flowers, lovers, kids, dogs and people of all ages were enjoying the afternoon.  We found a sunny spot in the grass to read and people watch.  We also strolled to get a closer look at the many street performers that cover the park’s walkways.