Wishing we were there!

Last year, around this same time in June, Andrew and I were finishing up a two and a half week long road trip style vacation through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and France. It seems unbelievable, now, that we had time for such a trip, but the reality is, when you are already in Europe, getting somewhere else by plane within Europe isn’t that time consuming or expensive. We packed up the rest of our belongings in Laredo at the end of May, waved goodbye to the beach and our incredible balcony, and took the bus to the Santander airport to begin the final leg of our European adventure. Once at the airport, we quickly realized our suitcase weighed 25 kilograms, 10 too many for the 15 kg bag we’d already paid to check. Unfortunately, paying 20 euros a kilo for the extra weight was entirely out of the question, so we spent the better part of two hours throwing away what I can now recognize as fairly ratty clothing. Clothes we’d lived in non-stop for 9 months. It was traumatic then and I know I felt clammy and hideous, climbing onto the Ryanair flight wearing two pairs of pants and three pairs of socks, but I’ve also shelled out the two hundred euros to schlep my stuff onto an airplane and I can say that being uncomfortable for an hour or so is much better that kissing goodbye to cold hard cash.

We landed in Brussels and spent the next few days in Belgium and Luxembourg. I don’t know if it was the excitement of starting a new trip or just the plain splendor of these two countries, but the first few days of the trip were some of the best! We drank Belgian craft beer at a pub called the Dead Rat in Namur, Belgium, visited the Strawberry museum in Wépion, a small town on the Meuse River and then stained our fingers red with strawberries sold from a stand on the roadside for a euro a pint. The tiny, delicate berries grown in Northern Europe are so different than the pumped up, grown-in-Florida-sand-berries we sometimes eat here.

Drinking a Waterloo
Drinking a Waterloo

Andrew at the Tote Ratte View of the waterfront in NamurDinantWe also stopped in a town called Dinant, while impressive in this picture, wasn’t much to get excited about.  After spending only a day in Belgium (ONE DAY! Not enough!) we spent our second night of the trip in a small town in Luxembourg, which we used as our home base to explore the miniature, but very worthy country of Luxembourg. We found it to be a nice mix of Germany and France. Similar industriousness to the Germans, but a more laid back attitude thanks to the French influence. Andrew had already seen Luxembourg City, but as it was my first time in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, we had to make a stop there. In Luxembourg CityLuxembourg Citythe happy coupleIMG_7475If only we were there again this year!

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Back to Laredo

We’re back to Laredo and resting while it is raining April showers outside. This post is mostly to tell you about how Portugal is an (almost) ideal travel destination and also to make sure you know that a wife being sole navigator for her husband can lead to extremely tense situations. We happen to both think our job (ie him driving and her directing) is more difficult than the other’s. I was told many times that I need to go off feel for a city that I didn’t innately have. Instead I offered names of streets to turn down (that happened to occasionally be one way-whoops) and we managed to arrive successfully to each and every location. The smart car made it back without a single scratch and we are more or less unscathed too. Andrew has commented on our cholesterol levels more than once though, since we’ve been eating a pretty meat and dairy heavy diet. Back to munching veggies for us!

Some quick highlights of our trip:

Bom Jesus. A gorgeous monastery built on top of a mountain near the Northern Portuguese town of Braga. Glossy emerald moss and mosaic tiles make up the path to the top of the monument and the gardens behind the cathedral are reason enough to pack a picnic and spend the afternoon in the shade. The walk from the bottom is a 15 minute one, up steps the whole time, but it is shaded and delightful. Devout Catholics sometimes complete the journey on their knees, a sort of pilgrimage. The fountains along the way are interesting as well, representing the 5 senses. My favorite was sight- a sculpture of a man with water flowing from his eyes.

Guimarães. Restored city, almost perfect old town. It is the birthplace of Portugal.

Porto. My first impression of the city was disastrous. Our hotel was frightful (sorry, Andrew), the first street we chose to saunter down was the very definition of sketch and our restaurant for the evening was difficult to locate. We went to bed a little stressed, but woke up to sunny skies and a gorgeous city after a full night’s rest. We slipped into a church decorated with traditional Portuguese blue and white tiled mosaics, we ate our first and only ever franceshina (a ham and cheese sandwich base that includes a hot dog and some type of mystery meat slapped in the middle, topped with a soft fried egg and a secret sauce), toured a Port wine cellar (and tasted!) and walked high above the Rio Duoro. Next time I am definitely cruising inland on the River Duoro!

Belém. This town, essentially a part of Lisbon, is a site that is featured in every tourist book written on Portugal. Its monuments best represent the Golden Age of Portugal. Also noteworthy is the café that serves the original recipe for the pasteis de Belém (cream custard filled phyllo pastry). These little beauties are made all over the country, but the best are found in the blue awned shop in Belém.

Portugal is a unique country, full of cultural and historical sites for tourists. We both agreed that we could have easily spent much more time there, exploring, enjoying the cuisine and just relaxing in the laid back atmosphere of its cities. I also can’t forget to mention how affordable Portugal is for travelers. An espresso shot (uma bica) is between 50-75 euro cents. In comparison, here in Spain, the same beverage will cost 1.10 euro. A night in a comfortable, family run hotel costs between 50 and 65 euro and should include breakfast and parking. Entrees for dinner run between 8-12 euros and a bottle of wine (at a restaurant) is 6-10 euro. Not to mention that the attitudes of the folks working in tourism is astonishingly helpful and positive. Almost everyone we ran into spoke a little bit of English, as well. Here’s what I’m trying to say… Go to Portugal!

If we can ever offer any help with travel questions or give you hotel suggestions for places we’ve visited, we’d love to. Let us know!

Semana Santa: Road trip to Portugal in the Smart Car

Hi! We wanted to say have a great weekend before we take a two and a half week hiatus from blogging. We’re off to enjoy our Semana Santa exploring Portugal. Andrew will be the red head driving the black smart car and I’ll be the moral support and all time navigator. This car is actually automatic, so I might take the wheel once or twice as well! Look out! This will be my first time to visit this part of the Iberian peninsula and I’m pretty excited to eat cod, drink Port wine and check out the old world towns of Porto and Lisbon.

Also, we wanted to tell the Cockrums from Knoxville thanks so much for coming to visit us! We had a great time eating seafood and exploring the Basque Country with you guys! While they were here visiting, we got to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage located on the Bizcayian coast. Really impressive.

We’ve been taking full advantage of having the car to see as much as we can. Last week we drove along the Cantabrian coast and enjoyed rocky, un-commercialized, pristine beaches. On Saturday, we took a day trip to the northern part of the province of Burgos, to a rural region called Las Merindades. We did a 10km walk around a man made lake, the water from which supplies the city of Bilbao. While not the most spectacular scenery, it was a beautiful day and a nice change of pace.

And, last, Happy (early) Easter. We’re thankful to have been given this opportunity to live and travel abroad for a year, but we know that it is a gift that has been given to us by the Lord. I pray that you have a restful weekend and can rejoice in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is risen indeed.

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.