Exploring the Sights and Culture of Valencia

“All journeys have secret destinations that the traveler is unaware.”
~ Martin Bulber

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Scenic Route to Valencia from Barcelona

Wow, our time in Barcelona was wonderful. Such a beautiful vibrant city with so much to offer. But our tour needed to continue to Valencia. We needed to continue exploring the sights and culture of Valencia. It was about a 4 hour and 30-minute drive since we opted to take the scenic route, but, it took us a little over 5 hours to reach Valencia. One must stop to enjoy the surroundings.

Hotel

We stayed at the Hotel Europa in Calle Ribera 4. It was a small hotel with an old and squeaky elevator. The room decor was outdated (like the 70’s probably). However, I liked that it was very clean. The service was good, and the price was unbeatable – about 28€. Its location was in a pedestrian-only street, great location. As of now, the hotel is permanently closed.

 

Sights

Driving through San Subirats, we caught a glimpse of what looked like a grape vineyard which seemed abandoned. The view was so relaxing, and it was such a beautiful day that we couldn’t help but stop to take a self-image using the grape vines as our background before continuing to Tarragona.

Grapevine stop

We took a small detour when we spotted a castle tower from afar. We wanted to make our way towards it but didn’t know how to get there. So, like the three Kings followed a star to Bethlehem, we followed the castle’s tower and lo and behold, we got there. The castle turned out to be an old Romanesque style church. The Parroquia Sant Juliá de l’Arboc, on Carrer Mayor 9, L’Arboc in Tarragona. Its construction began in 1630 and was finalized in 1650.

Sant Julia Parroquia

Another structure that caught our attention was La Giralda de l’Arboc, which looks more like a church than the Sant Julia Parroquia. La Giralda was a summer home for a newlywed couple that used as inspiration the Arab architecture present in Andalusia to build it. Located on Avenida Jacint Verdaguer 35 de l’Arboc, it is now a tourist attraction privately owned exclusive to concerted visits for groups of 20 or more. It is a guided tour at a cost of 10€ for about an hour. We are not concerted visitors, therefore, couldn’t go on the tour, bummer.

La Giralda de l’Arboc

Continuing our drive towards Valencia, we caught a glimpse of a Roman statue. It is the Romana Roda de Bará statue. It is in a roundabout in Tarragona.

As quoted by Santiago de Ignacio,

“This is Roda de Bará in Tarragona. Formerly Tarraco and port of access of the Roman ships to Hispania. These are modern works by the sculptor Bei Pérez, who died in 2017. With these sculptures, he tried to unite the present town with the Roman culture that settled there. In Spanish, the town is called Roda de Barà. It has important sites from Roman times such as the famous Arco de Barà. But these Roman heads are from later and are placed in roundabouts in the National 340 Road.”

Roda de Bará Statue

We continued our trip close to the coast of Torredembarra where we saw a sculpture of the Alpha & Omega in the Torredembarra Beach, about 262 feet offshore. The structure was made by the sculptor Rafael Bartolozzi and inaugurated in 1999 to commemorate the 20 years of democratic city councils. It was also part of UNESCO’s Art Route which entails a journey of sculptures in the Andes and various Latin American countries. These mark the beginning and the end with different reproductions. I just learned that the sculpture was taken down on, Thursday, June 14, 2018, due to the corrosion and deterioration of the sea. Will it be replaced? I don’t know.

Alpha & Omega in Torredembarra Beach

We arrived in Valencia precisely on the Day of the Valencian Community parade which is held every year on October 9th and is a local public holiday. It marks the anniversary of King James I of Aragon’s capture of the city of Valencia from Moorish forces in 1238. It was hard to get around as most of the town streets were closed and our hotel was located right in the center of the town. After circling the area for the third time, we spoke with an officer to see if he would allow us to park in one of the blocked streets. He was very polite and moved the barricade allowing us to park and gave us some pointers on what to do and not do in Valencia.

Once parked, we had to haul our luggage to the hotel. By this time, the parade was about to begin and the main route where they would go through was completely blocked, even for pedestrians. So, we had to wait until the parade went through for us to continue toward the hotel. But it was nice to experience Valencia’s culture and traditions. There were bands playing and people dressed as camels and in Medieval costumes. After the parade, the festivities began.


Auto Europe Car Rentals

It was getting late and we didn’t want to leave Valencia without visiting its top landmark, City of Arts and Sciences, on Av. del Professor López Piñero, 7, in Valencia. It is composed of five modern architectural buildings – an Opera house and performing arts center; Imax Cinema; Planetarium and Laserium; science museum and an open-air aquarium. The surroundings are beautifully landscaped and had restaurants and a bar. The architecture is very impressive and spectacular.

Restaurants

One of our meals was at the Restaurant Cal Min on Avenida Barcelona. It is family owned and operated, and the staff was very polite. We stopped here for breakfast and were not disappointed. It was a large breakfast for about 10€. If you’re ever in the area I suggest you stop here.

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We could not leave Valencia without eating a paella Valenciana of course! We had dinner at a restaurant across from the hotel – well we had dinner on the pedestrian walkway which was lined up with tables, chairs, and umbrellas from different restaurants. The paella came from Baldo on Calle Ribera 10. Since our lunch was basically snacks which we had picked out at the gas stations, we had a full dinner with appetizer, wine, and desserts at a cost of about 50€. Apparently, we chose the wrong restaurant because the paella was not that great, but the atmosphere was wonderful!

Valencia Special

Our time in Valencia was short. We took in as much as we could in such a short time. Valencia is a beautiful city so full of life. I enjoyed every step we took there – even hauling our luggage through a parade and crowds of people. Valencia is a place I could see myself living in.

Do you have any Valencia stories to share?

 

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What To See, Do and Eat in Rome in a Few Days

“One of the great joys of traveling through Italy is discovering first hand that it is, indeed, a dream destination.” ~ Debra Levinson

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Arriving in Italy

The flight from Chicago to Germany was good with little turbulence. I was not able to sleep much, maybe 20 minutes now and then. The food was not good at all, but at least we ate. Our next flight boarded and left on time. It was a short flight – about a couple of hours. We decided not to upgrade our seats for this flight. We arrived early in Italy. Our shuttle was waiting for us at the airport. The driver, Chaffi, was very polite and took us sight-seeing before reaching the hotel, which was good since check-in was at 2:00 p.m.

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Hotel

We arrived at the hotel around 11:00 a.m. The Donatello Hotel is a small old, family owned and operated hotel. The room was small but cozy and clean. The staff was friendly, helpful and accommodated our every need. They were polite to check us in early. It is conveniently located near the Porta Maggiore, Termini Station, and the San Lorenzo area nightlife, bars, and restaurants. The area was not the prettiest but never did we feel unsafe or threatened in any way. If you’re looking for budget-friendly without luxury, then I would recommend this hotel.

Porta Maggiore
Porta Maggiore

Cruising around Rome

Our itinerary included walking to the Colosseum and its surroundings. However, we did not plan on my left foot relapsing into excruciating pain. I felt as if I was holding back my family. We decided to rent a vehicle since walking was difficult for me. After several miles walking, my daughter and I headed towards the hotel while my husband, son, and son-in-law headed towards the closest car rental in the area. Good thing we carried around with a mobile hotspot. They arrived at the hotel in a 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Leave it to men to pick out a car, and they choose an uncomfortable, too advanced to figure out with such little time, sports car, for five people and they claimed it was the only one available. Yeah, sure!

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Seriously? A 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulietta for five tall people?

It was difficult getting around Rome in a vehicle. The streets are very narrow, unidentified lanes, tons of motorcycles, Vespas, and bikers on the road and pedestrians just cross through with little or no regard of automobiles driving around. It was a scary moment. I thought driving was crazy in Puerto Rico. Well, I was wrong – Italian’s beat Puerto Rican’s in insane driving.

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Sightseeing

We arrived at the Colosseum and headed towards the online ticket purchases to pick up our pre-purchased tickets. The best part of pre-purchasing your tickets is that we got to skip the lines and believe me, there was a very long line. We entered the Colosseum and were mesmerized by the remarkable sight. It is so impressive – enormous and so much history! I have an active imagination and still could not imagine how the Romans were able to build this gigantic structure with so many details. I had been to Italy before but did not have time to visit the inside of the Colosseum. So this time, it was imperative that we visited it. We spent about 2-3 hours in the Colosseum, and I’m sure we didn’t tour it thoroughly.

Standing tall at the Piazza Della Rotonda and a favorite gathering place for locals and tourists is the Pantheon, known to be the best preserved ancient monument in Europe. It still holds the title of being the most massive unsupported dome in the world. It is indeed a fantastic work of art where we spent some time outside at the piazza just admiring its beauty.

The vibe was great and it being off-season the crowd was not too much. We strolled around the beautiful cobblestone streets of Rome and discovered our plaza – Piazza San Ignazio! Well, we didn’t ACTUALLY discover it, but baring our last name, we felt the connection. The plaza is a small quaint area lined with the church Sant Ignazio di Loyola which is a baroque style church; Ristorante Da Sabatino and a few residential buildings.

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is such a lovely sight, all painted by Michelangelo himself. It is jaw-dropping and just so beautiful. There’s no photography allowed and shushing people is all you hear. Well, we didn’t discover the photography disclosure until my daughter was told by an employee she could not take photos. Too late!

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Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps are quite steep and are the connection between Piazza di Spagna and Piazza Trinitá dei Monte. It’s like a gathering place for artists, painters, tourists, and locals. Couples use it as a backdrop for wedding photos. One can see why. They are not just any steps. They are 135 -138 elegant steps with landings and a beautiful view of the Trinitá de Monti church at the very top and the baroque fountain, “Fontana della Barcaccia” at the very bottom. Also, very difficult to walk up if you’re suffering from two torn tendons like I was.

Oh, how packed was the Trevi Fountain. Visitors from all over gathered around the fountain taking snapshots, tossing their coins or just sitting around and admiring this beautiful massive structure. It is enormous standing 85 ft tall and 65 ft wide. This fountain collects about $3,500 per day from coins tossed by visitors. All coins are collected every night, and the money is used to help the needy with their groceries. The Trevi Fountain legend says if you throw a coin into the fountain you will return to Rome, so make sure to stop by the fountain and toss your coin in if you want to return.

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We also pre-purchased entry tickets for The Vatican Museum so on our way we were to explore. I’ll be honest with you, the Vatican is beautiful, but it bothers me a bit to see so much gold and opulence on a structure, and so much poverty in this world. I don’t think God cares about lavish things but how we take care of each other. I’m getting off track here. Anyway, the frescos are amazing – so much talent went into those paintings. It’s hall after hall of art and gold. I love the Bramante staircase just spiraling down – kind of looks like a snail’s shell.

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Bramante Stairs in The Vatican

In the surroundings of the Colosseum, one will see the Arch of Constantine, Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana, Portico Medievale, Domus Aurea, basilicas, restaurants, and cafés. One can spend an entire day in this area and not see it all. A lot of historical places to trace – so much to learn.

Restaurants

Hunger kicked in, so we stopped at La Biga Restaurant right across from the Colosseum for lunch. It was delicious food – pizza with prosciutto, fettuccine à la Bolognese, lasagna, bruschetta – delicious! The service was exceptional. The server was polite and patient with us. I highly recommend this restaurant and would return to eat here.

Another place we had lunch at was Tradizione & Fantasia Restaurant at Piazza del Risorgimento 53, just outside the Vatican.  The food was edible, and it was pricey. The service was okay as well.

One of our dinners was at Ristorante Italia Protagonista which is nestled in a small cobblestone street, Via Delle Paste, between old Roman architectural buildings. We dined “al fresco” even though it was chilly. They had heaters, so it was okay. The food was excellent, as well as the wine and beer. The server was polite and treated as very well. Therefore, I’d have to say that the service was excellent. I would definitely return to this restaurant and highly recommend it.

We stopped at Café Roma Gelateria, near the Trevi Fountain, for some gelato, coffee, and pastries.  The cappuccino was good, the dessert – which was some house rum cake – was not that great, and the gelatos were okay. It was a bit pricey for what it was.

Foreign Travel Guide

Shopping

In search of an original wood Pinocchio for my nephew, I visited Bartolucci store. Bartolucci is a family-owned and operated store which opened in 1936. Everything is hand-made in Italy, including the wooden Pinocchio, which was first carved by the owner, Francesco Bartolucci in 1981. Bartolucci store is a charming little shop with many wood creations to choose from. I found my Pinocchio, a wooden nameplate, and some other fun trinkets. If you have a chance, I encourage you to visit this little niche in Via dei Pastini, close to the Trevi Fountain.

Guess what we found? We found an Italian chocolate store! Venchi is a fine Italian Chocolate store, in Via Della Pietra, packed with an assortment of chocolates for every palate. It was impossible not to stop and buy chocolates. We were in Chocolate heaven!

Quirky Italian Ways

A few differences which I found in Rome unlike the U.S. was a gasoline station right spat in the middle of a neighborhood on the sidewalk. I had not seen that in years. Heck, I don’t remember ever seeing a gasoline station like that.

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Gasoline station

If you’re purchasing food to go, in Rome they say “Take Away.” In the U.S., we say “Take Out.”

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I love the way the Italian’s park their vehicles. “If it fits, park it!”

Rome is such a lovely city. There’s so much history, museums, statues and monuments to explore. Beautiful cobblestone streets and such a laid-back way of life. I love Rome and expect to return. I wouldn’t even mind living in Rome. I like it that much!


 

A Spiritual Experience in The Lost City of Pompeii

“Ruins are reminders that while time will pass, memories will remain.” ~ Sophia Khan

Pompeii Archaeological Ruins

Pompeii Archaeological Ruins

Pompeii… It took me a while to write about Pompeii. The Pompeii Archaeological Ruins is located on the west coast of Italy overlooking the bay and the city of Naples. There was a time when Pompeii attracted affluent people and vacationers to the area becoming one of the most desirable places for the distinguished and blue collared. It was lined with beautiful houses, villas, and shops until that fateful night when Mount Vesuvius, the most dangerous volcano in the world, erupted. It was 79 A.D. History says that the blast was so intense that it was seen hundreds of miles away. Ash and lava swallowed everything surrounding it – including the city of Pompeii. About 11,000 residents were buried under 13 to 20 ft. of volcanic ash.

It was left intact for about 2000 years when explorers began to excavate and discovered that the volcanic ash had served as a preservative. Little by little they have excavated and discovered intact artifacts, buildings, and even skeletons in the same position they died. The excavation has continued for the past three centuries and there is still a lot to be uncovered.

Foreign Travel Guide

Spectacular Architecture

As we toured the Pompeii Archaeological Ruins, I’m amazed at the beautiful architecture of its buildings, fountains, sculptures, and many other surroundings. What amazed me the most was the tile mosaics. These mosaics were done with tiny 1 x 1 tiles. The intricate designs were beautiful and perfectly aligned. How, without any of our current technology, were they able to do that?

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Pompeii is huge, there are about 45 hectares excavated thus far. However, many areas are blocked off. We spent about 5 hours exploring Pompeii and were not able to see it all. We walked through the many cobblestone streets stopping here and there for photos and to observe the beautiful landscape of Mt. Vesuvius which sits so peacefully on the background.

I Felt A Spiritual Connection

But among all the beauty and amazement, there is also the sorrow factor. I felt sad for those that lost their lives and didn’t know what was going on. Plaster cast of the bodies were made to showcase the impact on Pompeii’s citizens. Adults, children, and pets were among those displayed. Some were asleep, some couples hugged, mothers held their babies in their arms, and others tried to escape and were trapped by rubble from buildings that collapsed. I somehow felt their desperation to escape. I didn’t like the feeling even though I found Pompeii fascinating.

Acoustic Sound Fit for a Band

One of the buildings that looks intact is the amphitheater. It was made of stone and is 445 x 341 feet and seated about 20,000 spectators. Pink Floyd has been the only group to perform at Pompeii’s amphitheater. They performed in 1972 without any spectators. It amazed them how the Romans put thought into the acoustic qualities besides the structure. They returned to play in a concert in 2016.

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Worth Visiting

The fee to enter Pompeii is €11. But make sure you have plenty of time to explore Pompeii because one hour will not even get you halfway. It is a place worth visiting. If your imagination is like mine you can actually relive the spectacular glamour that existed in the beautiful city of Pompeii – as well as its sad story. Its story is not one to entice me to revisit Pompeii but its architectural marvels, detailed paintings, and mosaics would.

Below are clips of Pompeii’s Archaeological museums and amphitheater:

Pink Floyd in Pompeii Clip of Museum’s Memorabilia

Pompeii Amphitheater

Pompeii Archaeological Ruins Museum Clip


 

A Trip Back in Time in the Medieval City of Bruges

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~Marcel Proust

What beautiful countries and cities lie beyond the oceans that separate us. In Belgium, we visited another astounding city. Bruges, in northwest Belgium, is the capital of West Flanders and home of one of the most important centers for fishing and European trade, Zeebrugge Port. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage city. Dating back to the 2nd century AD, Bruges is a spectacular city ornate with cobblestone streets, medieval and gothic style buildings, secret gardens and winding canals that will take you back in time. Roaming through the streets of Bruges one can’t help but wonder who roamed these streets? What mysteries occurred here? If walls could talk, what stories would these tell us? There is so much to discover in Bruges.

Hotel

We stayed at the Novotel Bruges Central, a modern hotel nestled among the old gothic style buildings on Katelijnestraat 65. The rooms were clean and comfortable. The service was very good. I have to say it had the best and largest breakfast bar of all the hotels I’ve been to so far. And everything I had for breakfast was tasty and seemed fresh. The hotel was well situated, just about a 10-minute walk to the Belfry and marketplace.

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Restaurant

Dinner was at the Maximiliaan Van Oostenrijk Restaurant on Wijngaardplein 16-17. The restaurant is in a nice park area and seemed warm and inviting. It had a charming medieval-style décor and the atmosphere was pleasing. The service was good, I can’t complain about that. However, I cannot say the same for the meal. Everyone sitting at our table was unsatisfied with the quality or taste of our food. We all agreed it was bland, but let me give it the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was the choice of meal. However, after our tour guide kept raving about the food all day, I expected more.

Sightseeing

Bruges Grand Place houses the XPO Salvador Dali Museum, the Belfort Van Bruges, Provincial Court, Bruges St. Jacobstraat, shops, restaurants, hotels and so much more. There are many ways to explore Bruges. One can take a boat tour through the canals, or ride a horse-drawn carriage, bicycle, bus tour or even an electric Segway. We decided to walk since we would be on a tour bus towards Paris for various hours.

We spend some time at Bruges Grand Place venturing through the shops and quaint streets while taking photos of the splendid views and architecture. It was a cold gloomy day with a bit of drizzle here and there, but that did not make it any less appealing. I liked how there were many satellite shops and vendors all around Bruges Grand Place selling anything from produce, meals, handcrafts, oh and fruits! We bought the biggest, sweetest and juiciest strawberries I had ever seen!

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Church of our Lady, Bruges its tower, at 377 feet tall, remains the tallest structure in the city and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world.

Yes indeed, Bruges is such a beautiful, enchanted city – like from a movie scene. I will definitely put Bruges on my list of places to revisit.


 

Visiting The Not So Known City of Brussels

“To travel is to discover that everybody is wrong about other countries.”
~ Aldous Huxley

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Brussels Grand Place

Before visiting Brussels we never even considered it. Not because we didn’t want to but because it wasn’t among the most famous places to visit. The reason we visited Brussels is that it was in route to Bruges which was in our tour itinerary. For this trip, which included Amsterdam, Bruges, and Paris, we did a guided tour because we took my beautiful mother with us. We thought it would be easier for her to keep up the pace if it were on a guided tour and not independently since we tend to walk a lot, make many stops, and sleep little.

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St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral

On our way to Bruges, we made a couple of stops in Brussels. Our first stop was at the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral. Why is it that Catholic churches are always one of the most beautiful structures? It was buzzing with tourists too. This cathedral took about 300 years to complete. It is a beautiful church so full of history.

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The Atomium

We also visited the iconic monument of the Atomium. The Atomium was supposed to be a temporary structure. It was built in 1958 for the World Fair of Brussels. It became popular and now is a landmark in the Laeken area of Brussels. I didn’t even know it existed until we arrived.

Here’s a short video courtesy of Thomas and Cengiz aka The Travellers, enjoy!

According to the Atomium’s official website, “It symbolized the democratic will to maintain peace among all the nations, faith in progress, both technical and scientific and, finally, an optimistic vision of the future of a modern, new, super-technological world for a better life for mankind.” I really do like it’s meaning and can see why it captured people’s heart. It is an interesting structure and I’m glad I got to see it. Unfortunately, it was a shortstop – just enough to capture a photo or two – so we missed the opportunity to enjoy an interior tour of the Atomium. But I’m not worried. It just means we have to visit Brussels again.

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Mannekin Pis Fountain

Another one of Brussel’s iconic landmark’s is the Mannekin Pis Fountain. It is a small bronze sculpture (about 2 ft tall) of a naked boy pissing. Unlike the Atomium, I knew about the famous Mannekin Pis Fountain. However, I expected a big life-size boy fountain, not a 24 inch one. What amazed me more than the fountain was the amount of tourist anxiously waiting to get a photograph of the famous fountain. Well, that includes us too.

The Grand Place is the central square of Brussels where the city town hall, the king’s house, and Museum Van de Stat Brussels are located. It is a popular gathering place in the city, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one can see why. The square is cobblestone and surrounded by magnificent guildhalls, shops, and restaurants. The restaurants have outdoor seating which allows one to enjoy a meal while taking in all the beauty of the majestic buildings. Every now and then one will spot a horse and carriage available for rides. Such a pretty place.

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Horse and carriage ride

We came across an odd structure on Rue de Sables, right across from the Gaston La Gaffe statue. It was a container standing upright tilted onto one corner. I believe the tour guide mentioned it was commemorating the 60 years of art celebration. We were curious enough to get a snapshot of it and forgot to get a snapshot of the Gaston La Gaffe statue. Here goes another reason to return to Brussels.

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Ca Ru Containers representing 60 years of art celebration

Our visit to Brussels was short. But Brussels is, indeed, a beautiful city. And the short tour was just enough to convince us that Brussels is a place worth visiting.