How to survive a road trip with boys

There are a few pointers that anyone should know if they are travelling with boys, especially boys named Andrew and Mitchell.

1. Abundant car tapas are vital to an overall enjoyable experience. Let me elaborate. Here in Spain, all you need are some cured, dried meats (think jamón serrano, chorizo or lomo), crusty bread, tomatoes, paté de atún and maybe some cheese.  The possibilities with these few ingredients are endless.  For example: tuna and tomato, tomato and cheese, lomo and cheese, lomo and tomato etc.  The wonders of dried meats are that they don’t need to be refrigerated (I don’t think). Just take a plastic container with a lid, a serrated knife to slice the tomatoes and a roll of paper towels.  Violà, endless meals at minimal cost.

2. On the subject of food, a baked treat like blondies, brownies or banana bread go a long way to keep everyone’s sweet tooth satisfied.  And for a little nutrition, apples, bananas and oranges all travel well in the back shelf of the car.

3. Make sure that the boys’ Nalgene bottles are reachable at all times.  We all know the negative effects of dehydration.  We have all suffered with you in your epic dehydration episodes.  As a female, you may not drink enough water to stay hydrated, since this will result in too many potty breaks that would hinder our progress to said destination.

4. As far as navigation goes, it’s best left up to the boys. Failure to direct correctly could lead to a costly mistake.  No one wants that on their shoulders. Just be sure that when the boys do take a wrong turn, you point out how you told them that turning right was the best option.  Nevermind if you muttered it under your breath, just in case you were wrong.

5. Hot meals are the number one way to boost morale.  Want to have a content group to travel with?  Let us have enough time at the restaurant to enjoy a leisurely meal and order dessert, which should ideally be followed by a coffee. We’ll be a little less surly once we have to get back into the car, and if you’re lucky, we might even nap for a little while.

6. Be prepared for more seat time than they will let on to.  A quick drive between cities today, with a seat time of no more than an hour and a half? Don’t believe it.  Even if they mean well and truly believe in their heart of hearts that car travel time will be minimal, us ladies know to take the estimate they give us and double it.  Sorry boys.

7. Every city that is deemed worth the time it took to stop by and visit will henceforth be called a gem, jewel, diamond in the rough (what?), handsome or some other odd adjective that you would have never chosen to describe said location.  It’s okay.

8. Free parking is your best friend and your worst enemy. It saves you beloved euro change that we all know is worth way more than their US counterparts. On the other hand, precious time that could be used to explore given location is wasted driving in circles looking for that coveted spot.  I bet you can guess where I stand on this issue…

9. The windy curvy route that the boys say will be a scenic driving tour is being incredibly romanticized.  It will instead be cliff hugging, dippy, long and you will inevitably get stuck behind an 18-wheeler on that scary mountain pass. For this reason, be sure to bring along plenty of dramamine.

10. Even though this all may sound unappealing to you, a good road trip really is a blast. Plan well, make reservations so that you have somewhere to lay your head when the sun goes down, and don’t get too stressed out about what you might’ve missed. The reality is, you’ll probably see something amazing you’ve never laid eyes on before, and better yet, you’re surrounded by friends. It’s a win-win.

L’Abri sous Roche

Our first B&B experience in France was my favorite. Although the town of Tautavel is a little off the beaten path (think: it is most famous for housing the largest prehistoric museum in Europe, seriously?!) staying with Didier and his huge, friendly dog Bali was really pleasant.  Huge, clean room, spacious shower with ample hot water, and delicious homemade apricot jam for breakfast.  Did I mention that Andrew had an entire conversation with the host in French and I said stuff like j’meeapple Amanda.  Un semáne in Paris.  Chien, fromage, pain.  And the host still decided he would help us plan our driving route for the day.  Wow.

Day 3 of road trip was an ambitious day, and it paid off quite nicely.  We started off on a nice windy drive with Carcassone as our destination.  Although the wind on the ground in this fairy tale city was frigid, we enjoyed touring around a castle and eating a feast for lunch.  (Well I mostly enjoyed the feast. One of Andrew and Mitchell’s favorite mantras throughout the trip was that a hot meal can really boost morale.  I admit, its true. They know how to appease females when we are starting to feel road trip and endless car time weary). Andrew, Mitchell and I all ate a huge portion of a typical southern France meal, cassoulet, which included roasted duck, two types of sausages and white beans.  There was also the most wonderful salad served alongside.  It was simple, only mixed dark leafy greens, tomatoes and a bitter dijon mustard dressing that I must learn to recreate.

Our next stop was in Bezièrs. A quick, but enjoyable jaunt to the top of a hill to see green fields, a walk over an ancient Roman bridge and a race back to the car sums up our hour long visit.

Back in the car and onto the seaside town of Sete.  It had a distinctly charming feel.  Mitchell likes to say we can show folks the pictures and say we jetted on down to Venice.  I’m not so sure, but before sunset the town was bustling, maybe a little grungy, but the sparkling Mediterranean water in the canals made up for the graffiti.  After the sun set, the charm turned into a cheap, red-light district, I’m-not-so-sure-I-like-this-empty-street-feel, so we decided to book it on out of there.  I think part of the problem was we decided to use the public bathrooms near Plaza Stalingrad.  I don’t think that is ever a good idea.

Also a long car day, we left Sete to pick up our fourth trusty travel buddy at the Marseilles airport.  After a tense hour trying to find the location of our bed and breakfast for the night, we rolled in, tired, but satisfied.

And, if you didn’t know, South France loves bullfighting.  We didn’t know either.

Hacia Francia: Reflections from Andrew part 1

Well the blog is finally back after a nice long hiatus for winter travel. One of the beauties of teaching, especially in government-run schools, is a long Christmas break, free of responsibilities. With this time off, Amanda and I took to the road to see new parts of Europe.

This time around, we had a couple of new travel partners. We were joined by my good friend and roadtrip expert, Mitchell, and one of our friends living in Spain, Lauren.

Our destination for this trip was Spain’s Costa Brava and the broad region of Southwest France. While Mitchell and I both thought that these regions would be a small area that could be covered in a week at a leisurely pace, we quickly realized that there was much more to do than we had time.

We began by car from Laredo across Spain’s rural northern lands of Navarra and Aragón, before finally reaching the eastern part of Cataluña. The very first day we were reminded of the fact that traveling across Europe in winter is a different experience than in summer. Mitchell and I had memories of a previous Spanish roadtrip, with 15 hour days of sunlight and not a cloud in sight. This one started out with wind, then rain, and then cold. But what one loses in weather in winter, one gains in off-season prices and an absence of other tourists.

Our first night was in the Girona province, where we stayed in the small town of Caldés de Malavella. Amanda had found a nice-looking hostal with a local feel and we were pleasantly surprised. We were greeted warmly, enjoyed a nice outdoor patio, and were fed a generous breakfast. We then headed up through two Catalan classics: Girona and Figueres. Girona, which I had visited once before, impressed me once again. Everyone we encountered was friendly and the town is well maintained. Figueras was also a real win in my opinion. Made famous as the hometown of the surrealist master Salvador Dalí, Figueres has a charming old town, Rambla and of course, Dalí museum. A guidebook review of Figueres downplayed the city as being run-down, but I personally found it to be a pleasant Catalan town.

We then ventured over to the coastal jewel of Cadaqués. Again, made famous by the work of Dalí, Cadaqués is a summer playground of Europe’s wealthy elite. That didn’t stop Amanda, Mitchell and myself from enjoying a couple of hours in this beautiful town, where we were blessed with sun and moderate temperatures.

After Cadaqués, we had planned to continue along the curvy coastal road that winds into France at Portbou stopping at each coastal village, but daylight was running out, so we headed back inland to make the journey into France faster. Crossing into France at La Jonquera, we then had to make it to our B&B outside of Perpignan, in a tiny town called Tautavel. After an hour or so of very dark roads in the French countryside, we finally made it to the B&B for our first night in France.

Le weekend

Our weekend was pretty relaxed due to a number of reasons:  Andrew was recovering from a wicked cold, we have a pending trip beginning this Friday, and the weather was less than perfect.  We did have a few adventures though, starting with everyone’s favorite Swedish mega-store: IKEA.  After browsing their Christmas decorations online, we decided it would be worth it to buy a couple of things to make our apartment feel cheery.  I really like the live poinsettia and the cinnamon smelling tea-lights are great.

On the way home from IKEA, we took an hour long detour in Portugalete. Portugalete is a seaside Basque town, that has really turned into a suburb of Bilbao. Despite its proximity to the tenth-largest city in Spain, Portugalete still preserves an old world feel. The main tourist attraction is the Puente colgante, a transporter bridge that connects the two Basque towns of Portugalete and Las Arenas. It is like nothing I have even seen before since a cabin that can transport cars across the river hangs from light-weight steel cables that are attached to wheels underneath the bridge.  You can also take an elevator to the top of the bridge and walk across, but we opted out.  Walking 50m above the water, in December no less, even if the bridge has been there since 1893, doesn’t sound like real fun to me.

Saturday we took another trip to Liérganes where we attempted to go on a hike.  The main problem with trying to go for a hike in Spain outside of a national park is that the trails are poorly marked.  We saw two trails markers within the first fifteen minutes of our hike.  Afterward we were left on our own to guess which cattle run was actually the correct path. Although we didn’t make it to the top of the monte, we still enjoyed ourselves and got to enjoy being outdoors.

And, Sunday was our 6th month wedding anniversary.  I guess you only count that your first year of marriage, but this year I think it is worth recognizing! We celebrated by preparing for class and starting the countdown for our big before-Christmas adventure!

Next up: Christmas sugar cookie baking and package opening!

Turrón

Wow, do Andrew and I have enough turrón to last us a lifetime.  The sweet family that allow me go to their home each week to give conversation lessons gifted me the most delicious Spanish Christmas sweet.  They have truly been one of the bright spots for me since I have been in Spain and I hope that I will be able to continue to work with them throughout our year here.  They are generous and kind and exemplify hospitality.  I hope that I can be as good of an ambassador for the United States as they are for España.

Turrón blando is a paste made from ground almonds, honey, milk, flour and eggs.  It is a traditional Navidad treat and it literally melts in your mouth.  I like it quite a bit (think almond butter, but sweeter and richer) but Andrew isn’t so sure.  Included in our package were polvorones, marzipan people and turrón duro.  We’ve yet to try the turrón duro, but I’m sure we’ll break it out over the holidays.

Last week at tutoring, I did attempt to make pumpkin bread with the family as a way to share a traditional American holiday sweet with them. I thought they might like seeing canned pumpkin, individual measuring cups and learning new food vocabulary. It turned into a minor disaster though.  The oven smoked up a thick black, smelly fog that spilled into the kitchen (who knew it needed to be on circulate?!), there was no dish soap to be found and I miscalculated the conversion for the oven temperature by 20 degrees Celsius.  That’s no small mistake, let me tell you. Our bread turned out black on top, but tasty in the middle.  Just remember 350 degrees Fahrenheit equals 150 degrees Celsius, not 170 degrees Celsius.  ¡Feliz navidad!

Día de la constitución y otra excursión

Tuesday, December 6th was another national Spanish holiday.  We celebrated by going for a hike and taking a drive through the interior of Cantabria, just south of where we live in Laredo.  It was an impressive drive even though it was a nasty, drizzly day.  Most of these photos were taken in the Parque Natural del Asón. We’re off on another national holiday today!  Looks like a great day, so we’re going to try to get outside.  Happy Thursday.

The holiday season

Spain is a great place to be for the holiday’s for lots of reasons (not to mention the travel opportunities that abound with such a long time off school), but one really sticks out for me.  In Spain, the commercialization of Christmas, especially in provincial cities and towns, is almost nonexistent.  In many department stores and malls in the US, the cheer of Christmas has already worn off by the time December 25th rolls around.  Forget enjoying the beauty of Fall or taking one holiday at a time.  As soon as the air turns crisp (heck in Alabama, while we are still sweltering in late October heat) Santa Claus is ringing a bell at your local Wal-Mart and Macy’s is advertising for Black Friday.

While the absence of a commercial Christmas in Laredo is refreshing, the lack of holiday buzz falls a little flat.  Although the lights have been strung around town, they won’t be lit until the week before Christmas.  Spain is suffering a crisis, hello? Saving where you can is alright by me. But, I do like to enjoy the cheer that is spread for the 25 days of Christmas. Goodness, it hasn’t even gotten cold here yet!  We’re still enjoying mild 50 degree weather. It sure doesn’t feel like December 7th. I guess I am also missing the decorations that families put out around Christmastime. No lights glitter along the rooftops, no candles are lit to radiate peacefully from windows, no Christmas trees dance and twinkle from inside warm, cheery homes. While I am sure this isn’t true all over Spain, Laredo has seemed a little bleak. As much as I’d like to decorate, we’ve just deemed it a little unreasonable.  No extra funds plus no feasible way to carry decorations we buy here home to the States would equal waste, I guess.

Who am I kidding, I really like the 25 day of Christmas!  I am really going to miss the annual Christmas musical at First Baptist of Decatur this year and even more, I’ll miss singing Christmas carols at church on Sunday mornings in December.  Someone hold an extra candle for me at the candlelight service, please?  I’ll miss the smells and activity in the kitchen at home too- spice cookies and peppermint bark, 7-layer bars, caramel corn and maybe snickerdoodles.  The smell of evergreen is a perfect holiday scent too.  Decorating the tree always seems like its a pain, but enjoying it afterward always makes it worth it (I think, Mom? what do you say?)

Christmas for me will be quite different this year.  We’ll have visitors and we’ll go on a trip we have been planning for a while now.  It will also be my first Christmas married, my second abroad, but my first without my mom, dad, brother and silly pets.  Thankfully, the message that resonates in our hearts will still be the same:  that the Savior of the World was born on Christmas day and brothers and sisters in Christ everywhere will rejoice in unison. He is the real reason we celebrate on Christmas day!