Europe for Three

Graduation Celebration

My youngest grandson was scheduled to graduate high school and earn his Associate Degree from Pierce College in May 2008. He was already accepted into Pacific Lutheran and awarded a President’s Scholarship and a smaller music scholarship.

He was an exceptional youngster that carried that tradition of excellence through his teen years. We were advised by his piano teacher to home school him to give the best opportunity to learn and excel. We did and he did. I started the home school adventure when he was 11 years old. Now, you must understand, I was new to the whole school atmosphere and really did not know what went on during the school day. It had been over 50 years since I had attended grade school. So, I found a curriculum that was set for a 6th grade young man and we began. We studied 6 hours per day! He learned English, History, Math and the whole gambit. But, he did not learn in the traditional method of a few hours a day of repetitive work. He was taught, proved he understood and we moved on. He was happy and at the end of the 6th grade he passed the CA standardized test for a 12th grader. Life was good.

That excellence carried over into his piano. He did not start piano until age 11. We were on a cross-country trip in our RV and exploring options for some hobbies, interests, and possible professions. He excelled in computer technology – both hardware and software. And…. Since I came out of the profession as a software engineer supporting the operating system on IBM mainframes, I thought that was a logical, well-paying, rewarding profession for him to follow. Since mainframes were rapidly becoming extinct with the exception of scientific laboratories, I thought Microsoft was in his future. Turns out he is an electrician!

But… back to the graduation. I planned to take him to Europe to ‘bum around’ using only public transportation and our feet. I had reservations for June to stay for 3 weeks exploring Spain and Italy. We both spoke a little Spanish but his was more refined and his accent was decent. In July 2008, his graduation adventure began – heading to Spain and Italy. He was 17 and I was 68. We relied on public transportation with one exception: a flight from Malaga to Milano.  We began our journey in Puyallup flying British Air to Heathrow in London.

Since I had worked so many years traveling all over the globe for Amdahl Corporation, I had accumulated many air miles. So… I booked First Class Tickets to Europe. Then, the bump in the road happened. I was stricken by Atrial Fibrillation (Afib). My doctor, unable to forbid, stated strongly that I should not travel to Europe with just a youth. So… I asked his mother if she would like to join us. She agreed.

Preparation – First Class

To prepare beyond the internet for site seeing and local travel, Vacation Internationale for condos and travel books from the library, my daughter and I traveled via Amtrak to Lynnwood to meet with travel experts from Rick Steve’s Travel Company. You all may have seen him on PBS channels describing his European tours, art galleries, best practices, best eateries and best lodging. The trip was well worth the day. We purchased back packs for each of us. I still use mine today in 2016. They hold a tremendous amount of necessities. I will tell you more later, but suffice to say we wore our backpacks on the front and our suitcases on our backs.

We arrived at SeaTac around 1400. Check-in was smooth, security light and we used our passports for the first time. In America, using our passports is an experience most do not encounter. In fact, most Americans do not have a USA passport. Most never leave the country, some never leave their state and some even stay in the same county their entire lives. These are unique concepts not understood by our foreign visitors.  Since we booked our flight via Alaska Airlines using their air miles we were directed to the gates as usual. However, Alaska usually leaves out of the main terminal at SeaTac and it is usually on the main concourse. This time we were directed upstairs. If the kids were wondering at all, they did not say a word.

The first great surprise for them both was arriving at the door upstairs and being escorted to the First Class Lounge for British Air. My grandson’s eyes were so wide open at the site of the comfortable chairs,

Matthew Checking out the Amenities in First Class Waiting Room of British Air

food of all varieties and no limits.  LOL We each chose our favorite entertainment while we waited in a very comfortable quiet secluded environment with room to stretch, sleep, read and eat. Matthew checked out the TV channels and the internet. Coelleen curled up and read a book. I sat quietly, relaxing and smiling.

We boarded the plane around 5 pm for a 6 pm take off. We were introduced to our seating cubical. We each had an individual cubical that gave us secluded privacy with a TV, table, and comfortable seat. We were given pajamas, pillows, eye covers, toiletries, and slippers. Soon after takeoff, we were served a full course dinner of steak cooked to perfection, potatoes, salad, vegetable, bread and dessert. British Air uses quality china and silverware for serving. Our tables in our cubicles easily accommodated the many dishes and drink containers.

The cubicles are designed to cleverly house a full length twin bed. The flight attended is available as desired to ‘turn down your bed’. I slipped my pajamas on and went to bed soon after dinner. I slept comfortably without interruption. My grandson and daughter each, in their own cubicle, stayed up way into the night watching movies. The sound does not carry outside the individual cubicles. The upgraded and unique design gives everyone traveling a pleasurable trip.

Since I paid for our tickets using hundreds of thousands of miles, I did not know how much each ticket purchase price would have been. It is over $35k per person! WOW, we are Blessed.

London – Heathrow Airport

We arrived in London Heathrow Airport around 10 am London time. The walk to the first-class lounge is about 1 mile. It was slow going as I had to carry my backpack and was weak from my recent bout with Afib.

Welcome Respite of movng sidewalks at Heathrow Airport

In fact, I could NOT carry my pack so my grandson began carrying my backpack along with his at this early stage of our journey. He continued the practice for the entire trip. Later, you will hear about the many long flights of stairs and the search, sometimes futile, for elevators.

We packed light, but enough clothes etc. for several weeks still weighs in heavy. It is easy to make your way at Heathrow when traveling first class but, we had to have our passport out and ready several times. ID checks are frequent and at each change in a terminal, a turnstile, and building. Once in the first-class lounge, relaxation was easy. All manner of food was available as well as a variety of drinks. They offer fresh fruit, salads as well as the more popular junk food varieties. On our return trip, we were given a complimentary spa treatment as we waited for our flight. The English really know how to pamper. J

Madrid, Spain

From London, we took a short flight to Madrid. We learned all about pick-pocketing first hand without losing an item – Praise God – as we traveled via subway to our hotel. We had to ride several escalators and a ring of pick-pocketers selected me as their target. They started by being helpful to us, pointing us in the right direction, chatting and walking with us to “show us the way.” As we found escalator, after escalator, one young man emerged in between me and my daughter just behind me. I had been carrying the passports as they were needed so often. I kept them all in one place – at the top zipper of my backpack. Coelleen noticed the young man as he reached up to unzip and enter my pack. She hollered so loud the entire full escalator quieted and stared. He took off. We found him later with his troop but could not find police at that time.

On another landing, a lady approached us and mildly briskly told us to “never wear your pack on your back. Keep all your valuables in the front and hang on to them besides.”  She explained she was an American living in Madrid and had learned the hard way. They have gangs of predators in all public places working in clever teams stealing. The police are aware and catching some but it is overwhelming. All locals wear their valuables close to their bodies. (We watched in Rome as young men on motorbikes rode up to tourists and yanked their purses right off their bodies and rode off.) This is a foreign concept in America. However, I must say I have not walked the streets of Los Angeles lately. So, remember my comment above about our day packs? In Madrid as soon as we arrived we learned very quickly to always wear our daypacks on the front.

We stayed 3 nights in Madrid walking and riding the subway system everywhere. Our first night was in a pre-planned hotel with easy access to the subway. Turns out it was very old with a one person one suitcase elevator. Our room was on the 3rd floor. We asked for a triple and found two twin beds. They brought in a cot for Matthew. We stayed 4 nights in this establishment reminding me more of a Hostel – not youth but basic accommodations. We did have air conditioning but it would not go below 23 C.  The temperatures soared in the low 40’s but we loved every minute.

The first night, around 6 pm, we went looking for dinner near our residence. We could not find anything open except bars. The posted schedule indicated dinner starts at 9 pm. We were not only tired from travel but hungry. So, we opted for the bar.

Typical Downtown of smaller Spanish areas

That was our first introduction to Tapas. Fortunately for us, tapas is recognized and treated like a sophisticated cuisine. Turns out we are very fond of most varieties and Tapas became one of our usual meals. Our favorites were potatoes and eggs. The Spanish have a special method that turns this common boring dish into an incredible edible.

The next day we were heading into the city to look around and experience the culture. On the main street – nearly a freeway with fast moving traffic – we found lots of people celebrating Span’s World Cup Soccer win. There were literally hundreds of people dancing, singing, yelling and drunk on the streets and sidewalks. The drivers in the cars going by were not only speeding but swerving. There were many in convertibles hanging out and generally driving recklessly.

The locals were not rude or threatening at all. They were having fun and thrilled at their country’s win. While I watched shocked by this celebration obviously having gone on all night – this was around 9 am – I was not paying close attention to the crossing at the intersection. I basically followed Matthew and Coelleen while they hurried across. The exertion, plus I was really frightened by one driver who nearly hit me causing me to run, generated a stress reaction. So…. While crossing, I suddenly went into atrial fibrillation. We stopped and rested but I knew I could not continue. One of the ‘rules’ when traveling with me is IF I am unable to join in on all activities, you have to promise to go without me. Coelleen very reluctantly followed my rule. She and Matthew escorted me very slowly back up the hill and into my bed. She called my cardiologist in America and he gave her excellent advice. Once I was settled, they left again to explore Madrid.  I was eternally thankful for the rickety old elevator that transported me to my 4th-floor unit. I rested and took my anti- fibrillation medicine and sipped water all day.

Coelleen and Matthew had an exciting time and came back full of stories. One such story was a city policeman taking a criminal down and beating him. He may have been a pickpocket which we had already experienced. Coelleen wanted to film the event but was too intimidated to use the camera. (This is really funny as later when we were in Malaga, the English told us they were afraid to be in America due to the brutal police and prison system.) The kids also visited several areas and sites within Madrid that were easy access via walking. The city is an excellent opportunity to exercise while being entertained.

We three are from Washington State in America. We are known as the Evergreen state and while we do have high humidity, we have infrequent high-temperature days. Summer usually brings us 80’s and occasional 90’s F. We found Madrid to be hot and humid. Our showers day and night while refreshing, did not stave off the excessive water present on our bodies all day. We learned to ignore it for the most part, drink lots of water and focus on the unique and friendly people, their culture and beautiful countryside.

We spent some time just wandering around our local area outside the city of Madrid. We found local internet cafes, coffee shops, and several good bars. We learned how to ask for our meal to go after much frustration on the part of the wait staff. We tried all manner of asking, demonstrating, etc. In the end, in English, it is “take away”. LOL  One day we ventured out via local Spanish train and visited Toledo. We used the Subways exclusively to move around the city and its suburbs.

Bilbao

We traveled to Bilbao via train. First class travel in Spain for short distances is similar to America’s Amtrak Business Class. The seats were comfortable and the car is generally spacious and quiet. We usually secured 4 seats together with the 4th used only for holding our daypacks. Our backpacks were with us at all times but up on ledges above our seats, The 4 person arrangement provided a table in the center and we spent hours playing cribbage. We made an internal rule that we had to count in Spanish. Matthew found this unchallenging, Coelleen did very well and, me? Well, not so much. First, they are superior cribbage players, they count and add faster and could multitask using a foreign language. It resulted in many bouts of uncontrolled laughter. I mostly ended up cheating being caught each time. Now, you really cannot call it cheating as I just counted incorrectly. J  Several times the locals on the train caught onto the joke and had fun with us. We thoroughly enjoyed the ride seeing the surroundings and the people. The Spanish are a gracious and friendly people.

Since we planned this excursion from thousands of miles way, we did not know what to expect in Bilbao. If we had known the treasure we were about to find, we would have booked for 10 days. But… our ‘cast in concrete’ plans only provided for us to stay 4 nights. We loved Bilbao. It is Basque country. The culture Is similar as far as work and rest schedules and fun loving, but the language is completely different.

Train Travel in Europe is fun, comfortable and efficient

Bilbao is small (population in 2014 of 350k) when compared to Barcelona but is a large tourist destination. It is located in the far north very close to France. It sits on the Black Sea. Bilbao is an industrial port surrounded by mountainous terrain. It serves as the de facto capital of Basque Country.

Both my grandson and I knew a little Spanish but it did not help in Bilbao. It is more like being in Greece than Spain as far as the alphabet and therefore the street signs. We shopped in butcher shops, bakeries, etc. We never did find a grocery store.  Each food group is its own specialty store. The cheese shops were our favorite. We tasted cheese and bought large chunks to eat with our homemade artesian bread as we walked for endless hours among the streets within the city. Turns out eating while walking and chatting with friends is very common. But, we had to be aware that at 2 pm, daily, the entire town shuts down for siesta. All shops are closed until early evening and like, Madrid, dinner starts after 9 pm.

While Bilbao is at sea-level, the city boasts a huge hill that rises high above the city. We discovered it up close as we walked the local streets. It offers numerous methods to get to the top. You may hike up a steep trail which includes steps for part of the way, walk around the back and enter after a mild climb or as we did, use the strange little elevator. Once on top, there are opportunities to stroll for several hours. There is a playground, sightseeing opportunities and grand relaxation stations along the pathways. We chose to walk down via the long way like traversing a mountain via trails. Dinner that night was a welcome respite.

We stayed in a small hotel with our room on the 3rd floor. Elevators (Ascensors) are scarce throughout Spain. In train stations, we searched to locate an old unused ascensor to protect me from climbing too many stairs and my grandson having to carry my luggage up too many flights.) Our room was small but comfortable. The best thing about the hotel was the owner. She lived just down the street a few blocks. When she heard, my grandson was an accomplished pianist, she offered her home and piano to us. We were thrilled and Matthew played beautifully for himself, us and the small daughter who was taking lessons. Even though she owns a hotel, she lived very modestly. Her apartment was in a building of about 30 apartments downtown Bilbao and without elevators also.Our room did not have cooking or air-conditioning but we did have 3 beds and stairs!!!  A window in our room looked out over the town square. In the mornings, the town is bustling with shoppers, workers moving to their jobs and children on their way to school. At 2 PM the streets are empty, the shops all closed and we are all alone on the sidewalks. By nightfall, 9 pm, we are in our room and ready for sleep. That is when the square becomes a lively music driven loud party atmosphere. I left my window open as it did not change the level of volume open or closed. I watched several times as people gathered, brought their instrument’s, mostly guitars, and voices ready to belt out a favorite tune. This continued into the wee hours of the morning each night we were there. I will say, though, that my bed was at the window and I was never disturbed except by the smoke floating up.  I think every 3rd person smokes regardless of age, color, sex, etc.

 

Since we had limited time and wanted to experience the most of the northern Spain, we chose not to venture into the newer section of Bilbao. We loved old town and it felt like we belonged. We did venture out though by bus and traveled to San Sebastian. Another city to love. We fell in love with this small grand city. The food in San Sebastian is the best all over Europe. We tried Tortilla Espanola (Spanish Tortilla), the gelato and several other specialties. We all wish we could learn to make these specialties here in the USA.

Another day we traveled by bus to Bermeo and spent a wonderful day.  They have several local clean parks that are well appointed and open to the public. We continued on via local bus and were surprised when the driver announced we had arrived. We exited the bus and began a long winding journey down a narrow path to the water’s edge. This hike was to see a famous statue on the water. While the views were exceptional, the cold rain was not. Coelleen was the most humorous about it. She exclaimed, “if only I can get warm again, I will never complain about the heat’. Of course, that was impossible and did not hold up.  LOL  Even though I have never had the pleasure of visiting France yet, we did not venture into France as we found more than enough to do locally.

One such outlandish activity was learning Bilbao is the home of the Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1997. The curvy, titanium-clad building is an attraction all on its own. It can be seen from all around the city. But… wait until you go inside. There are parts I could not even experience. It is dizzying to try to walk within the cleverly and mathematically designed structures. My grandson mastered them, but my daughter and I only watched part of the time. We stayed several hours reveling in a joyous time inside and out.

Barcelona

From Bilbao, we traveled by train to Barcelona using first class arrangements. Spain has a great train system, runs on time and is very comfortable.  We do not seem to be at the mercy of the freight trains like in America. Amtrak ‘rents’ space on the tracks here and we spend a fair amount of time sitting still on the sidelines if we are off schedule at all. It is all good as the train Is comfortable and most people traveling first class in America are polite and courteous too. We spent the night in Barcelona at a local hotel close to the train station.

We stayed only one night – just a big city. I have read the reviews of Barcelona and the active night life.

Barcellona Cathederal; – Oldest around but under repair

I am sure we could have spent more time exploring but it did not draw our attention during the planning stage nor after we arrived. We did walk around the area of our hotel, saw the most famous cathedral under repair and found the culture typical of big cities but friendly.

Typical, I mean, busy, hurrying, not making eye contact and other features of a people focused on making a buck. Barcelona is Castilian so taking the train to our next stop exposed us to a 3rd culture: Catalan. We traveled via train to Girona. We stayed one night in Girona just as a transition. What a cute town and luxurious hotel. We got caught up on sleep, email, clothes washing, etc. The only issue we had to address that was shocking and unlike our research: our hotel was NOT just 2 blocks straight down the road – an easy walk. Now, maybe for Spaniards, this 1.5-mile walk in the baking sun is just a stroll but for us, it was nearly impossible. If we had any idea it was that far a taxi would have been ordered. But, as we walked, Matthew carrying my backpack, we kept thinking it must be that next building. Finally, Matthew and Coelleen went on ahead faster and found the hotel. They came back to get me. I was sitting on a bench. With just my daypack, the walk was too much. And, of course, we did not have cell phones as at the time, the cost was so prohibitive we chose not to need them. It turned out to be a mistake a few times but likely still not worth the over $1,500 it would have cost.

L’Escala

L’Escala is a village on the Costa Brava in Catalonia, Spain. It is an area with many beautiful walks and fun tram rides. It boasts unparalleled awesome beauty of the sea.

The “resort” is located at: Porta del Rei; Plaza Punta Montgo; Apartado De Correos 243; 17130; Escala; Girona, Spain 34; 72773584  902-20 22 20

This resort is an RCI owned property that we do NOT recommend.  The area, we wholeheartedly recommend.

The trip from Girona to L’Escala is only 25 miles. We were planning on taking a bus or train for approximately 4 Euros each. However, all the search options available did not lead to a solution. We even went to the train station to try to determine our best solution. In the end, a private car service was the ONLY available option for BOTH directions. The Cab charged 65 Euros one way. (at the time that equaled $120) and the trip was less than 40 minutes.

But… that was ONLY the FIRST shock. We saw all these fabulous looking resorts as we traveled in the city of L’Escala but did not stop at any of them. We had just come from a beautiful hotel in Girona and were expecting first class accommodations. When we arrived, we challenged the car driver that he found the wrong place. It was more like camping with the boy scouts!! We were let off at the curb and ventured into a building. That was when the awful horror that this really was our resort started to sink in LOL. There was no one around. We tried all methods we could find and finally a young man came into the room. He knew we were coming and said he had not received my emails nor phone calls with questions. I had written and called all around the area hoping to connect with someone that could tell us about the property before we booked it. This was a failure on my Timeshare companies part, on RCI and on the resort manager. We traveled a long way and booked the resort through a representative of RCI who works at Vacation Internationale. It is too bad when these type things happen as it caused us to never trust RCI again unless we can find reviews, to be skeptical of all overseas accommodations and to drop our membership in RCI completely. The man introduced himself as the manager, maintenance man, and overseer. He was a single person ‘team.’. Turns out he hates his job, hates RCI and was looking to more on. We would like to have moved also.  J He took us to our room. The barking of the neighbor’s dogs, who were quite excitable when newcomers arrive, was the least of our concerns.

L’Escala has a population of around 6,000, which swells to many times that amount during the busy summer months. This is a phenomenon I am thoroughly accustomed too. We winter in Quartzsite, AZ where the local population is under 2,000 people. Most are seniors and living on Social Security. During the winter, the town grows to over 500,000 people. Nearly all are Recreation Vehicle RV) travelers. Many are full time and just come through for the winter season and some for only the month of January.

L’Escala is surrounded by beaches. Just out from our ‘resort’ we often watched the deep sea divers at play. The area is very rocky with a steep climb down to the water’s edge. The view is spectacular. I could easily have my home there and watch the water and activities daily.
The Costa Brava region is not far from the French border. That may account for some of the popularity of the area with tourists.  Since it is a smaller footprint we saw many independent travelers like us as well as families.
We had such pleasure walking the narrow streets in the older section of town. It is not as unique and quaint as Bilbao but has retained the typical Spanish working town character.
The views were spectacular out on the Mediterranean and we loved watching the snorkelers, divers, and swimmers. We did not let our terrible accommodations get us down. We ventured out each day and spent some of the best days around the area. One day we hiked on top of the hill that overlooks the water all the way to the old fishing village. It was so hot, such a hard climb and soooooooooooooo much FUN!! Matthew wanted to do it again the next day.

The ruins of Empúries – remains of Greek and Roman civilizations

This is a special place to visit. We walked to the ruins via the town of L’Escala. We walked along beaches and coves with fine sand. In the villages, we easily found sustenance of high quality and clean bathrooms. All indications are this was a prosperous territory. They were active in commercial shipping activity. However, the town was abandoned in the 3rd century AD. It disappeared beneath the dunes and was hidden for centuries. In 1908 it was discovered and to this day, 2017, excavations continue.

In this video from the tourism of Spain. You are able to see the cliffs for a brief moment – that is where our condo was. The beaches and towns shown are accurate just not where we lived.

  

 

About 3 blocks, down a steep hill is one of the main landmarks Carrefour’ supermarket. Now, being from America with full service super stores this was a ‘mom and pop’ grocery store. But, they did have homemade bread daily and the other necessary items for us to cook and enjoy our food. L’Escala is proud of their” Fútbol pitches” (Soccer in USA terms) and associated floodlights that burn way into the night. Like many USA cities, L’Escala uses high-quality natural looking turf with optimized sliding capabilities and optimal ball roll. LOL  So, bottom-line, the stadium is first class, the “resort” was more like the hood.

We traveled by bus to a medieval town called Pals.  It sits at the top of a hill, overlooking Platja de Pals. The town, itself, is beyond charming with its cobbled streets, craft shops, traditional restaurants, and bars. We walked the entire town, climbing where necessary and awestruck by the ancient buildings, streets and city layout. The history in ancient Spain is foreign to us from a young country like the USA.
We found Pals to be a walker’s paradise. Auto transport is forbidden on the narrow winding streets. While the cobblestones remind me of our North End exclusive neighborhoods in Tacoma, WA USA, I had never been exposed to a full day of maneuvering via cobblestones, up hills and down steep walkways. It was thrilling and a full day of exercise in the sunshine. Of course, the Mediterranean climate of cool breezes kept us comfortable the entire time.
After 7 nights, we moved on to Malaga via train by way of Madrid which required a change of trains and stations. The subway is convenient and easy without any impact of a language barrier. The local above ground subway system is crowded and we each had a huge backpack plus a day pack. The trip across the city took over 35 minutes where we were pushed and shoved but survived. The locals seemed stunned that we would use public transport to travel with luggage. That is my style. My daughter and grandson did not welcome the adventure.

Malaga, Spain

Arriving in Malaga, we found our most memorable resort during the entire six weeks: Los Amigos Beach Club. This is a resort par excellence. All staff from Management, entertainment, cleaning, etc. were extremely helpful. We had so many things to do we did not want to leave the resort. Now visiting Spain and its culture was the point, but the pools were amazing, bocce ball with lessons and tournament, salsa dancing lessons, several trips to other cities as well as flamenco dancing offered to us at no extra charge by staff. Beautiful and comfortable suite cleaned daily, on-site grocery store, quality cookware, dishes, and on and on.

This resort was perfect; was high class, very friendly and run by the English. The only Spanish staff was the front desk clerks and the landscaping, pool maintenance crews. The pool was fabulous; I swam each day. I could walk out the back door (sliding glass) onto a small covered patio with lounge chairs. From there, a short walk across a path to the pool. The pool was sparkling clean with a very deep pool for swimming and a modest 4-foot pool for children and adult aerobics, walking etc. The pool was open 10 am – 10 pm daily. I often could enter the pool early as the maintenance crew finished the deep pool first. I could live in this resort as far as amenities and comfort.

We had a small grocery store just outside the residence walls. It had items such as snacks and ice cream. Earlier, in our travels, we had learned about Magnum ice cream bars. These are fantastic ice cream covered in Belgium chocolate. Later, several years actually, Magnum bars arrived in USA grocery stores. We were thrilled. But…. The chocolate nor the ice cream itself were of the same quality. Disappointing but did not stop me from buying them often. Interestingly, the price was low during introduction and continued to rise as popularity grew. Today, as most of you know, I do not eat sugar, snacks, etc. I miss them but my health revels in the new found eating for strength not habit.

We learned lawn bowling – with weighted balls (bocce ball). This was so engrossing and fun we did not notice time slipping by nor the sun scorching our skin. I held up pretty well but Coelleen and Matthew were both burned. We treated it with what we could find in the Aloe department. Fortunately, it was not too serious (like a memory 8 years prior on Mt. Rainier were I took Matthew to slide in the snow. He was burned so badly he required medical attention). Coelleen and Matthew joined a team as our resort competed with another nearby. We hung in there until the finals. Then our team of 4 – all first-time learners – competing against a team that had been playing for 16 years!! You know the results. (smile).

Coelleen and Matthew went to a bull fight. They traveled by bus and did not return home until after midnight. I was long asleep and did not want to go anyway! I had seen a bullfight when I was very young in Mexico and swore off them! They do not want to do it again but really did have a good time. They sat with a Spanish lady who took very good care of them and taught them all the right moves – like when to wave the white ‘flag’ – a Kleenex, when to stand, when to shout, etc.

This was one of the small bumps in the road in Spain. The bus drivers appear to not like tourists in Spain or Italy. We had several uncomfortable experiences but rolle with it. This one was a little bothersome. The kids returned from the bull fight via bus as they had gone earlier. The bus was blocked by parked cars on one small street delaying the trip and irritating the driver. He had to call for Police to clear the road. So, I guess they arrived late and that made for the next steps. Matthew spoke enough Spanish to get by and he knew the stop they needed. This was a challenging stop like others we had experienced: right on the main throughway (freeway). We must walk on a path for about 7 blocks to arrive at the resort. Not a dangerous walk, but dark and challenging. But…. To Matthew’s surprise, no matter what he said the driver ignored him. They arrived in the next town – the buses scheduled next stop. The only solution was to hail a taxi back to the resort at exorbitant cost. They were frightened, in a foreign city, after midnight, no way to contact me and low on Euros. They were beyond upset, but another lesson learned.

Coelleen joined a poolside ‘drinking sangria from a wine-skin’ competition. She made it through the first round. The 2nd round required her to keep drinking while she knelt down on one knee and back up. She faltered. The Judge assisted her but she did not make the cut. She told me the sangria was very tasty but potent. I had watched the young man make it and would not have tried it even if I was thirsty.

We went one night to attend a Flamenco dancing show. One of the English entertainment guys had to work at another resort that night, so he dropped us off and later picked us up.  It was fantastic. What talent these young people have. We had front row seating with cushion seats. They really take care of the guests from the resort!! They served us sangria again. Matthew was only 17 but they served him as well. He watched the show mesmerized by the dancers and randomly drank from his glass like he was drinking a soda pop. He began to get loud and talkative. His mother took his drink away from him much to his disappointment! Mine just sat there. But… before the night was over Coelleen had downed mine as well.  So… as you may imagine, we walked out of the theatre and up a long flight of stairs to meet our friend and driver. We were in a questionable neighborhood that we had not noticed earlier. Coelleen was focusing on the environment and missed a step. Matthew caught her and we accuse her still today of it being the 3 glasses of sangria.

Milano

From Malaga, we needed to get to Milano (Milan). We tried to figure out a route to take our preferred travel method – the train. We could not find a route that did not involve numerous side journeys, overnights in unplanned places and too much time. We decided the best approach was to fly from Malaga to Milano. We flew with Easy Jet.  In Milano, we stored our luggage – we were only carrying a backpack and a daypack each – and toured the city using the bus system. Milano is a Big city but laid out very well with an easy public transportation system.  We took advantage of being in a larger city and found a restaurant open and had a gourmet serving of locally prepared pasta! When in Italy!!  LOL

We left via train for Assisi. We did not arrive until 23:35 but the owner’s son picked us up. He was very pleasant. This was an Agriturismo. They are popular in the rural areas and provide guests with an experience of living off the land and seeing the life of agriculture first hand. It could have been wonderful. Usually, they cook for you and the accommodations are comfortable. I did an extensive study in rural places to stay in Italy. Their website indicates they are delightful, full service and a great adventure. I spoke to the son numerous times and he assured me the family is involved directly in our stay. This proved to be true for shopping at the local grocery establishment. The lady of the house took us shopping with her and helped with selections. But, the property had not been taken care of and was in disrepair. It was infested with fleas, mosquitoes, cats, etc. We did not have air-conditioning and it was 37 C. With the windows open the cats all came in – whole families of them – and brought fleas.

Matthew killed mosquitoes until we left after 4 nights. We did have fun seeing the old town of Assisi. It is famous for its church and draws visitors from all around to worship. The local bus system is good. However, we were a 2K walk to and from the nearest bus. Usually, in the AM the son would be over cleaning the pool – which was disgusting – and he would give us a ride. The people were great but the Italian culture impeded them from getting anything done!  We left by train and went to Rome!

Rome

The Spanish trains were awesome, clean, fast, and the food was excellent. Even the regional trains which were slower were clean, etc. The Italian trains, well you guessed it. We were in first class and they were all terrible. But, we endured it and had fun anyway. We played so many games of cards on the trains and each night before retiring that we wore out a deck of cards (smile).

We love Rome!!!  Even though it is a relatively big city, dirty, crazy drivers, unkempt, unfinished in every aspect, filthy subways, mean bus drivers, crazy scooter riders, crazier ‘crotch-rocket’ riders – WE LOVED IT!!  We traveled by bus the first day to see the Coliseum. We did not go in that day but spent time just oohing and awwing! We walked around the building and looked from far and near. It is so amazing that we were standing right there with history from 84AD.

I recommend everyone visit Rome. We were so blessed to have found a tourist helper – Coelleen did – and he directed us to a hotel just steps from the train station yet off the main busy road. It was clean, served fresh breakfast – though we quickly tired of hard boiled eggs and lunch meat (smile), air-conditioning, elevator, friendly staff, etc. etc. etc.  Even the rate was not bad considering we were in Europe, Italy, etc. 90 Euros per night.  Everything in Rome was more expensive. The restaurants even charge extra if you want to sit down! No joke. If you order take out, or stand and eat, you save about 10% on your meal.

We traveled all around the city using subways and buses. We even ventured out of the city via train to a small community that is no more. There were 60,000 residents back in the early years of Rome. It was built on the mouth of a river. We walked through these ruins and were able to imagine living there. It was an awesome day!

We spent one entire day at the Vatican. We had traveled there one evening to get our bearings. We were so glad we did. We also had Rick Steve’s book and studied it following his advice for our visit and were very successful. We are not Catholic so could not understand some of the goings on but it was fabulous just to see the construction and Man’s efforts. Matthew climbed the 571 stairs to the top of the Cupola and was thrilled. It was hard work but well worth it. These are memories for a lifetime!!

We traveled to Pisa after 7 nights in Rome.

What a silly little famous tower that was so exciting to see!!!! We traveled by local bus to the location and just stood there in awe as did everyone else. Matthew climbed the tower and found it ‘scary’ as it really tips a long way. When you are inside traversing steps that are narrow and slanted it sets you off balance.

From Pisa, we had easy access via train to the Cinque Terre. (5 towns). We loved each one and visited 3 times during our 4-night stay in Pisa. That was the idea as we booked the room in Pisa. Rates were better, access was easier and the hotel was not built on a cliff!!  We walked each day up and down hills. We had such a great time and were exhausted each night. The only difficulty was that dinner is not served – nor the restaurants open- until 2030. That was too late after our trekking. In Spain, we lived on Tapas and cooked for our evening meal. In Rome, we usually ate Pizza.

From Pisa, we caught a 6 am train to Milano to Bern, Switzerland. We only had 3 nights in Bern but truly had a wonderful time. It is the place where Matthew wants to return. We stayed at a bed and breakfastwith Ann Hofer (phone (0041) (0) 31 747 85 84; cell (0041) 079 581 46 17 in her home. Her email is ventura1@sunrise.ch.

Upon arrival, Ann escorted us all around the little town for a stroll. Now, for the Swiss, regardless of age, a stroll is a brisk walk stopping to view the sites and discuss the history and architecture. We climbed onto the town wall, visited all areas and lakes. The next day we left early with her husband. He took us to the mountains. We saw awesome sites and went inside the mountain to visit Trümmelbach Falls.

Trümmelbach Falls was one of the highlights of the trip. It is a fascinating place where a stream of water has cut its way through the hard rock, creating deep crevices and caves, only a few feet wide. A man-made series of tunnels lets visitors access the caves, and see the torrents of water cascading through the confined space. The elevator took us up 1,000 meters; from there we walked up flights of stairs at each level. It is not possible to explain. I did not want to leave. I could make that climb each day and just sit in wonder at the power of water and God’s creation!!

The Trümmelbach falls are extraordinary, even in a valley known as ‘the valley of the waterfalls’. These falls are unusual; they are the only accessible glacial waterfalls which are inside a mountain. You are up close and personal with rushing torrents, illuminated rocks worn smooth by the flow of water, glimpses of towering descents through cracks in the stone, corkscrews of water gushing into the depths, and dramatically lit, milky pools. The waterfalls drain the glaciers of the Eiger, the Monk and the Jungfrau mountains pushing up to 5,283 US gallons of water rushing through every second. The canyon is shiny and wet and polished to a satin finish by the continuously falling water. Spotlights set accents and every once in a while, a ray of sun hits the falling spray, forming a brilliant rainbow. The sound is deafening.

The Trümmelbach falls are a few kilometers past the town of Lauterbrunnen. Traveling by car they are about 20 km from Interlaken. You can take a train to Lauterbrunnen and the public bus stops next to the waterfalls. Bern is the nearest airport.

Time to Head Home

We returned from 6 weeks in Europe on WED kthe 6th of August 2008. The flight home was uneventful. We chased the daylight so sleeping was not an easy option. We again enjoyed the comfort and convenience of the individual first-class cabin cubicles. We were Blessed the whole trip, happy to be home, but wanted to continue for several months as well.

Happy Travels to all.