Friday, December 23, 2011

Yule lads, concerts and learning from the locals

Colin's favorite Yule Lad: Stuffy

Clark prefers Bowl licker
Because we are spending the holidays abroad this year and won't have the same traditions we are used to at home, we have instituted a wonderful new tradition taught to us by our Icelandic neighbors, the arrival of Yule Lads. These are Icelandic elves that used to be quite mischievous (and ate children) but now bring treats to kids if they have good behavior (like going to bed early and listening to their parents). So for the 13 days preceeding Christmas, kids are to leave one of their shoes out next to a window and if they are good, they will receive a small treat (if not, they get a raw potato). Here is a famous poem about them and they also have a Facebook page! The boys love this tradition and have added it to their daily regimen as well as the more traditional advent calendar. And no raw potatoes as of yet!

In-ground trampoline and tetherball

Clark with Gustave the pig
We were invited over for lunch to a friend's house a few weeks ago and learned a few more things about Spanish living. They live out in the "vega" just outside of town which means they have more room to roam and access to the countryside. They've incorporated some cool features like solar power (sure makes sense over here) and have room for many animals including a dog, cat, pig, lamb and multiple ducks, chickens and even a large turkey.

Drying permissons, and ripening with whiskey
 We also discovered that they have the same fruit tree in their yard that we do so the husband showed Nat how to dry caqui (persimmons) and how to use a cup of whiskey to help them ripen more quickly so he immediately picked the fruit in our garden when we got home. I have to admit, it worked great and the fruit tastes quite like mango, but without that pesky pit.

Other Christmas traditions
On Monday we had a "Christmas concert" up in the school yard whereby about 20 parents sang three songs, one traditional Spanish one, one flamenco song written specifically for the 25th anniverary of the school and the worldwide favorite "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (in english believe it or not). The concert was organized by a French mom and her English husband who also acted as conductor. Although I only made it to one rehearsal I had fun singing along (I'm right in the middle in the green down jacket - kind of hard to see).

Clark and I attended the music recital of the Icelandic girls upstairs and enjoyed hearing them play cello and piano and tomorrow there is a Christmas party (Navidad de fiesta) at the school which apparently each grade participates in although I can't say that my boys have much interest.

We are off to Morocco on Friday for 11 days along with our Icelandic neighbors so I am signing off until next year. All the best to you and yours during the holidays and will post again in 2012.

Karen, Nat, Clark y Colin
Christmas 2011
Granada, España

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Italy (Part 2): Florence

Eurostar train
Mom and Clark
For this segment of the trip we took the super fast Eurostar train for the 2 hour ride from Venice to Florence where we caught a 5 minute cab ride to our friend's home on the other side of the River Arno. There we were warmly welcomed by the entire family and were quickly whisked off to San Miniato Al Monte, an amazing church where we hoped to see monks sing vespers (but because it was a holiday in Italy the schedule had changed). Then it was on to a "girl's night out" for Karen with Alison and a bunch of fellow ex-pats and a chance for the boys to play futbol with our friend's kids' friends, followed by catching up back at their beautiful home over an amazing selection of local antipastas as well as delicious Italian vino.

Boys with "David" (I had just
asked them to pose naked and
they were not amused).
Candy at the Christmas market
The next day I joined Alison while she played tennis with girlfriends (on a real clay court) and the boys got some game time on the Kinect as well as target practice with the boys' nerf gun artillery. We then spent the day wandering around the streets of Florence, hitting the local Christmas market, loading up on candy for the boys and visiting the Galileo Museum whose highlight included a display with his actual forefinger and thumb (ick). That evening another high school classmate of Nat's and her Italian boyfriend joined us for drinks and we ordered in yummy Italian pizza.

Local vegetable market
Colin enjoying Italian stew
On Saturday Alison arranged for us to take a Taste Florence tour which I highly recommend to anyone travelling to Florence. Started by a young American woman of Italian heritage a few years back as a way to stay in Italy, she takes folks on an extended tour of the local markets, bakeries and meat, cheese and wine shops including explanations and tastings of olive oils, balsalmic vinegars and a variety of other foods (we even visited a fancy wine cellar). Although the boys didn't appreciate all the specialty items, the gelateria's were a definite hit.

On our final day in Florence we had a lovely afternoon lunch at the 4 Leoni, our friend's local neighborhood Trattoria. Florence was a true highlight of our time abroad so far and we can't thank our friends enough for their generosity and hospitality.

Catching raindrops off the rooftops
Smoking pig head
Our next stop was Bologna where we planned to spend the night as we flew out from there the next day. I didn't book this train trip ahead of time as I wasn't sure what time we wanted to leave town and I knew the trains left every half hour for the 30 minute trip. Unfortunately when we showed up at the train station that afternoon we discovered that all the trains were sold out until 10pm that night as it was the end of a 4 day holiday weekend. We also found out that we couldn't take a bus until the next day and I had already reserved our hotel in Bologna. Soooooo..... we bit the bullet and talked a very nice english speaking cab driver in to getting us safely to our hotel. It took him an hour and a half to get us there and although he gave us a discounted rate suffice it to say we went way over budget.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Italy (Part 1): Venezia

We recently left Spain for the first time since our arrival 3 1/2 months ago, to visit friends who live in nearby Italy. Now nearby is a relative term as although on a map it doesn't appear very far away, it's kind of a pain to get there.

Just back from Italy where
we over ate and over spent
With budget in mind, I booked us low-cost flights on Ryan Airlines which leaves from Madrid (which is a 4+ hour drive away) and flies to Bologna from where we could catch a train to our first destination, Venice. With all the logistics worked out (visit scheduled, train seats reserved, overnight in Madrid figured out, bags packed -- carry-on only of course as it's 30E a bag for anything more), we started the long drive towards Madrid. All went well until our friendly GPS guide with the sultry female voice (I still haven't figured out to change to English but all the better for our spanish practice), repeatedly started saying Recalculando every time we missed a turn. But we finally found the hotel which was very nearby the airport and after a dinner that cost more than the room (thankfully the room was cheap), we headed to bed, very early by Spanish standards.

In front of the Rialto Bridge
Up at 4:30am the next morning for a 6:45am flight and we're off. Easy 2 hour flight to Bologna, kill a few hours in the train station by trying out our first Italian pizza at a nearby Osteria,(it was a hit) and we're on to Venice which is only 2 hours away.
Our gondolier, Simoni, checks his cell
phone mid-ride
Now this is my third time to Venice, the first as a backpacker in my twenties, once with Nat before we got married and now 16 years later with 2 boys in tow. I wanted to do it all this time and figured we could finally afford it so on to the cheezy Gondola ride. It was actually quite fun although our gondolier, Simoni, was on his cell phone almost the entire time and I don't think we even made it the allotted 40 minutes. At least it was off-season so the prices were (slightly) lower.

Colin amongst the knaves
We stayed at a gorgeous boutique hotel in a private courtyard just off of Piazza San Marco (I stayed at a youth hostel when I was there the first time) and we even had 2 rooms as they couldn't accomodate all 4 of us in one room. The rooms were decadent with murals painted on the walls, terry cloth robes, an incredible breakfast and most importantly a bath tub, something we don't have back at home in Granada. (I took 3 baths while there while the boys enjoyed watching "snooker" on TV).
Breakfast fit for a King
We dined our first night at a restaurant favored by Johnny Depp but the biggest suprise of the night was when the British girl (identical to Madonna in the 90's - think short bleach blonde hair) at the table next to us handed Clark a 5E bill and told he and Colin to spend it on gelato, she thought they were so adorable. Note that she had probably had a bit of champagne as she also told us she was recently engaged so I am guessing her biological clock had started ticking. Regardless, Clark didn't know what to do with the cash and immediately handed it to me for safe keeping. 

Feed the birds, tuppins a bag
The next morning we spent at least an hour in Piazza San Marco playing with all of the assertive pigeons that roam the area looking for tourist handouts. Apparently it is now illegal to feed the pigeons (they used to sell birdseed), but everyone still does it. I was appalled at having pigeons wander all over my arms and head but the boys loved it. (Thank god for their hoods as Clark actually got pooped on).
Naval Museum
Then it was on to the Naval History Museum (Museo Storico Navale) which was both a hit and a bargain (the only one we found in Italy, mind you) at only 3E for the four of us. We spent a few hours checking out the model ships as well as maritime equipment and costumery. Afterwards we stopped by a bakery and a park and then another cafe along the Grand Canal on the way back to our hotel (did I mention that the drinks here were 9E each? -- and we sat inside!).

Along the Grand Canal
We spent our final morning in Venice at the famous Doge's Palace, another location I had never visited. This is a fascinating palace built in the 1300's for the Doge of Venice and is currently used as a museum. The boys overlooked the golden decor, famous paintings and enormous rooms for the much more interesting (to them) prison on the other side of the Bridge of Sighs, one of the most famous bridges in Venice known for the last view of the city that convicts got before they were sent to prison. We then took a water taxi back to the train station and caught a train to our next destination, Florence.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Skiing in Spain, seriously...

The Mediterrenean Sea and Morocco
are off in the distance

When we first considered moving to Spain, we certainly didn't give skiing much thought. Perhaps if we were lucky or ambitious we would make a quick trip to the Alps or the Pyrenees to get in some European skiing. But then we learned Granada has a local ski area only 45 minutes away, with some of the best skiing in Spain. Funny, I never put snow and Spain in the same sentence together. Until now. Turns out this local ski area, in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains, is wonderful! (in fact, I just learned that they are the second highest ski slopes in Europe).

Upper village (mid-way up the hill)
Our local area just opened on Saturday (NOTE: first ski resort in Europe to open this year as the altitude is quite high). And although it is still early season there are plenty of runs open and the village itself includes 2 gondolas, 15 chairlifts and 2 T-bars as well as all the amenities you would expect at a destination ski resort (hotels, condos, restaurants, bars -- there's even an ice rink, climbing wall and luge run, although they are not open yet). And did I mention it's only 45 minutes away? It's amazing to leave our ancient neighborhood and a half hour later find yourself at a typical ski resort that could be anywhere in the world.

Area ski map
Nat and I talked to friends who were up on opening day and decided it was worth it to re-schedule our Spanish class and hit the slopes on Tuesday. We had so much fun, we re-scheduled class once again and pulled the boys from school on Thursday (it was a quiet day for them, no Spanish tutoring) and headed back up. With a quick stop in Cena de la Vega (nearby village) to pick up rental gear (it's cheaper there), we were on the hill before 11am and skied until the lifts closed at 4:30.

Boys on the highest ski hill in Spain: ~10,000'
Both days were clear, sunny and lovely. Although it hasn't snowed all week, the stuff left behind is still light and powdery due to the dry climate and high altitude. In fact, at the very top (~10,000 feet) you can see all the way to the Meditereanean Sea as well as Morocco if you're really lucky. And having the sun out all day made it feel like real Spring skiing for us, in somewhere like Utah or Colorado.

Boys on the T-bar
So we played hooky and spent the day checking out all the different runs and chairlifts, doing some racing and enjoying a late afternoon Spanish lunch. But there are no free tapas up here. You even have to pay for parking (!) but the lift tickets aren't bad, by American standards (32.50E for us and 22E for the kids and ski rental is cheap - 10E for the day) but if you add it up it is an expensive outing. We hear the weekends have horrendous crowds so we may just try a few more mid-week getaways at the New Year.
Spanish lunch: we dined outside
in the sunshine

Stylish Americano