Living The Life In Spain “La Madre Patria”

“There is no nightlife in Spain. They stay up late but they get up late. That is not nightlife. That is delaying the day.” – Ernest Hemingway

Our trip to Spain, la Madre Patria as some call it, was the first trip in which we created an itinerary and followed our instincts. It was a 15-day trip (2 of them were flying, of course). Our itinerary included various towns beginning with Madrid, Segovia, La Rioja (Logroño), Zaragoza, Barcelona, Valencia, Cáceres and back to Madrid. We visited wineries, famous landmarks, parks and whatever else crossed our path.

Spain Map
Our 3000-mile route (blue stars at each city visited)

We arrived at Madrid through Barajas Airport – very nice and modern airport, by the way. It is fully equipped with the latest technology and bamboo ceiling making it the largest bamboo project in the world. It has a huge underground tunnel. I don’t know if it was the many hours on the flight or what, but we walked down so many flights of stairs, three or four floors, it seemed as if it would never end. It’s like a labyrinth of a tunnel after tunnel. It is a huge airport, but we were able to get around.

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Barajas Airport in Madrid

We reached the vehicle rental kiosk (very difficult to find) and proceeded to pick up our vehicle – a Fiat 500 – quite small but easy to get around in. Our itinerary included a 3000+ mile adventure stopping in different cities. We began in Madrid and visited Segovia, Logroño (La Rioja region), Zaragoza, Barcelona, Valencia, Cáceres and back to Madrid. While visiting the different city’s we parked the vehicle in one of many underground parking garages available and continued by foot. Those parking garages were quite expensive though, as much as 20€ for a few hours. And again, some were so deep underground that it made you think, “Where the heck is this taking me?” I get claustrophobic just thinking about it.

Spain specialSince this was an independent trip we rented a portable Wi-Fi for about $70 for the 13 days that we’d be there. It was great to have a portable Wi-Fi. We used it for everything – finding our way around, placing FaceTime calls without using our data plan, and for all our devices including tablets. Great idea if you are traveling independently and don’t want to incur in roaming charges. We used the WAZE navigation app on my iPad to get around. Good thing we speak the language because the street names are so long and difficult to understand in English that we had to change the WAZE language to Spanish which made it easier.

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Using the WAZE Navigation app in Spain

When we arrived I was not feeling too well, probably because of the long flight. We stopped at a local pharmacy for some over the counter headache relief medication. They had the equivalent of our common Tylenol which is Panadol. It was a box of 24 at a price of .69€, that was less than $1.00US! Traveling independently was wonderful. Being able to stop anywhere for photos or a bite to eat made the trip so much better. While driving to one of our destinations, in one of our many stops at a gas station for fuel, we purchased snacks for the ride – two loaves of bread, goat cheese, “jamón Iberico” (Iberian ham), coffee and water bottles – all for less than 10€!


Auto Europe Car Rentals

We stopped at old castles in non-tourist areas, in different wineries, olive tree plantations, and we even took photos of a huge display of a bull that seemed to pop up in different areas. We were just curious to find out what it was about. It turns out it was a billboard for Toro Osbourne brandy.

Our Spain trip was a great one – so much to see and so little time. It is a beautiful country with its many great architectural buildings, monuments, easy access to the metro train and bus. Its laid-back lifestyle entices us to take a look at our hectic lives and realize that there’s more to life than just working. People in Spain still take their siesta from around 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. It has a very vibrant and bustling nightlife great for everyone – especially for young adults. Their foods (tapas) are spectacular and their wine exquisite! I encourage everyone to include Spain in their bucket list. It is a country worth visiting.

We have decided that when we retire we’ll move to Spain.  Have you envisioned yourself living in a different country If so, what country, other than yours, would you live in?


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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.

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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.