Traveling the world, learning languages, and immersing myself in new cultures.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Spanish Road Trip: Christmas 2014

Synopsis: My parents are flying out a few days before Christmas so we can tour around Spain a bit and then head back to Pamplona for Christmas with my new Spanish family. I plan to do all the driving so my parents can enjoy the scenery and relax.

Road trip!

Day 1: I head out at 5 in the morning to Madrid, and it's actually nice since no one else is on the road. Super foggy and dark, though. As the sun finally comes up around 8:15, I can finally see the beautiful Spanish countryside in the Sierra Guadarrama, and the sunlight helps wake me up.

Meet my parents at the airport in Madrid and we sit and talk a bit over coffee and catch up. Hop in the car and while heading down to Granada, we stop at Toledo on the way. We park in a garage and my mother and I take the elevator while my dad walks up the stairs. I tell him if anyone talks to him in Spanish to say "no entiendo". He walks away practicing aloud "Nintendo". 

As soon as we are out the parking garage, we grab some food. We eat at Bű Terraza and it is delicious. Walk around the city a bit and it's very foggy, but still nice. Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo towers over the city, but again the fog makes it hard to see.

Drive on to Granada and I'm glad my parents are there to talk to because there is nothing between Toledo and Granada, except some beautiful mountains right before Granada. Walk around the city a bit and stop to eat at La Terraza, by the Granada Cathedral, and the food is decent, except the paella. Then we head to our hotel that we found, and decided on, while eating dinner.

Thoughts: So great to see my parents again. It's been a full year since we last hung out and we have so much to catch up on. My dad is funny at languages and when trying to imitate me saying "hasta luego" he says "yoyo". Turns out we got a pretty good hotel, Gran Luna De Granada (tripadvisor review), at 77€ for 3 people, plus cheap parking and breakfast and Wi-Fi included. My parents also gifted me an iPhone 6 for Christmas, that they let me open tonight. So happy! Today I drove 8 hours.

Picking my parents up at the Madrid airport

The very foggy city of Toledo, Spain

My parents and I on the side of the main cathedral

Cool statue in the smallest, no grass-having park (photo credit: dad)

Dad and I posing with Cervantes

Beautiful University in Granada

Monstrous cathedral in Granada with a procession going inside

Day 2: Start the day in Granada with some really good breakfast at our hotel. Then head to La Alhambra. We drive around the area looking for the entrance and ticket office, which are not clearly marked, and we end up at the Campo de Los Martines (camp of the martyrs). There is a beautiful garden, with an amazing view of the city and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Next, we head back up the hill and find the entrance to La Alhambra. Every website that we read says that you usually have to book one month in advance. But we are able to get in on the same day. December is the most crowd-free time to come here.

La Alhambra takes over 4 hours to see and it's really cool, even in winter. The weather is amazing. When my mom purchased the tickets, they didn't tell her that we had to report to the Nazaries Palace at the time printed on our ticket, but we see a sign as we enter that says to check the tickets, and ours shows a time from 15 minutes ago. We go back to ask if that's ok, and they said it won't be a problem, probably because there aren't that many people here. We head over to the Nazaries Palace and walk through with no problem. It reminds me quite a bit of the architecture I saw in Morocco. Next, we walk over to the Alcazaba, which was the fortress and military headquarters  and we get the best view of the city and of the rest of La Alhambra. Last, we go over the Generalife and walk through the gardens up to the water source. The entire site has clear Moorish and Christian influences and construction. The blend of the two styles makes for an aesthetically pleasing experience.

Afterward, we make a 90 minutes drive to Malaga. Park downtown and walk down the main strip,  Calle Alcazabilla, until we find a place to eat. We end up at El Pimpi and e
at a pretty good meal. My dad and I go outside to wait for my mom. As soon as we walk out, we are greeted by a crowd of singing and dancing Spaniards who see two big black Americans and very kindly coerce us into dancing and mumbling made up Spanish words with them. Then they give us a free drink and we toast to something Christmas related. My mom comes out right after and misses the whole escapade. 

After going to three different hotels and them not having vacancies, we end up at the Holiday Inn Express, which was all but impossible to find.

Thoughts: La Alhambra was a great experience and we only heard of, and planned to do, the night before. The nightlife in Malaga is popping! People in Malaga dress nicely and go out as seen by all the clubs and people dressed up. Today I drove an hour and a half.

Breakfast at the hotel and the first picture with my new iPhone 6

The entrance of Campo de Los Martines

Amazing view of the city from the gardens of Campo de Los Martines

King and Queen of the world

Book one month in advance, huh?

Obligatory handstand ;-)

The Court of Lions in the Nazaries Palace

If we were Northern Africans, we'd dress like this

View from the Alacazaba

Court of the Water Channel in the Generalife

It wasn't me

Moments before we were "recruited" to have fun singing and dancing

In front of the Roman Amphitheater in Malaga

Day 3: After a continental breakfast at the hotel, we drive into downtown Malaga and park at a garage. We jump on the city sightseeing tour bus, which doesn't have much good info, other than letting us know that Spanish words that start with "al" are of arabic origins. As we get off the bus tour, the sun comes out, to make walking around the city much nicer. Walk down the main strip, Marqués de Larios, and see the cathedral, before stopping at a restaurant to eat at, which has decent cafeteria food to fuel us until we find ice cream.

Walk back down Marqués de Larios to see Christmas parades, concerts, festivities, and street performers are everywhere. About two hours ago there was almost no one on the streets and now its tough to even walk around without bumping into people. Leave Malaga and head to Seville.

Seville is packed and lit up for the holidays. Because Virginia and I like it so much, I recommend to my parents that we eat at 100 Montaditos (tripadvisor review). There, I meet Pilar and Pilar, with whom I have a full conversation in Spanish. With the help of the internet and my new friends, we find a great hotel (tripadvisor review), with cheap parking, breakfast, and public transportation access.

Thoughts: Because it's the Sunday before Christmas, people are out and about and many of the shops are open until 9pm. Picasso was born in Malaga, so everything is named  after him. I downloaded the tourism audio guide app in Malaga and it had some pretty good info. Also you can scan QRC codes around town at the monuments and it will give you info about it. The lady at the tourism office was excited to practice her french with me, so you have an American and a Spaniard speaking French in Spain. This is why I love traveling.

Seville on the Sunday before Christmas is crazy! I asked a local (Pilar) about why they are so many people out and I ended up in a full length Spanish conversation (& I understood) with what is claimed to be one of the hardest areas of Spanish speakers to understand. Today I drove 2 hours.

The easiest way to make a last-minute tour of a city in a few hours

Beautiful scenery all over the city

They took pictures of everything

That's a big door

My dad, the Cenachero

Fairly empty Marqués de Larios

Someone tried to take a picture of us and the cathedral... at least she got us in the photo

Mom hanging out with Solomon Ibn Gabirol under the beautiful orange trees

Torrijos Obelisk in Plaza de la Merced

FaceBook (vanilla) and What's App (kiwi-banana) have their own ice cream now???

Marqués de Larios packed with people a few hours later

Maxwell Family Christmas photo, Malaga edition

Maxwell Family Christmas photo, Seville edition

Best snack restaurant in Spain, so far

Fountain of the Generation of '27 with a new upgrade

Only my dad would be watching the Dallas Cowboys game in Spain

Day 4: Have breakfast in the hotel and then head out into the city. Seville is huge and there is no way we can do it all in one day, so we park downtown and then jump on the touristic bus. We get a nice overview of the city and a bit of the history.

After bus tour, we walk to the cathedral, which happens to be the 3rd largest in the world, and the largest gothic cathedral in the world, and then the surrounding areas. Then we stop at The Good Burger for dinner, and it's pretty tasty.

Then we hit the road and drive to Salamanca. We stop at a rest stop just past Merida and the girl at the counter is super friendly and we end up speaking Spanish. After leaving, we run into intense fog, so much that when we tried to stop at a rest stop, we couldn't find the gas station and had to keep going until we got to Salamanca, where the fog was much lighter. We booked ahead of time for a change, so we just go straight to our hotel.

Thoughts: Another beautiful day in southern Spain. When we are in the places between major cities, less people speak English, so I get to practice my Spanish more. Today I drove 4 hours.

Just chillin' on the Gold Tower

Touristic bus riders

Reaching for one of those delicious oranges

The largest gothic cathedral in the world posing next to me

Dad being attacked by rosemary-wielding gypsies

The castle facing the cathedral (photo credit: mom)

My cartoon parents at the cathedral

Day 5: We opt not to eat breakfast at the hotel in favor of more sleep. Then, after checking out, we head to Salamanca's historic city center. We walk across the Puente Mayor del Tormes (really nice Roman bridge) right into historic downtown. Not many people in the town. We go into the Cathedral de Salamanca (an old cathedral with a new one built right next to it), with a long-winded audio guide. After the cathedrals we head down Rua Mayor into Plaza Mayor and we decide to eat at Las Torres (tripadvisor review). We try hornazo for the first time and it's pretty good. My mom practices her Spanish with the waiter, and speaks flawlessly, minus all of the mistakes.

We leave Salamanca and drive to Zuasti (a suburb of Pamplona). Once we arrive, Leo and Virginia greet us at the door. Arthuur and Rodrigo are still up so they meet my parents too. The boys go to bed and we stay up for a few more hours chatting and getting acquainted.

Thoughts: I will definitely grab my gloves and a cover for my ears, because it is a lot colder in the north of Spain. It was freezing in the cathedral in Salamanca, too. Today I drove 4 hours.

Welcome to Salamanca

What does a Roman bridge and a historic city photo need? A handstand, of course

The whole clan is here and ready for some tourism

The facades are so ornate outside the cathedral

The main hall in the old cathedral

The main hall in the new cathedral 

Listening to the audio guide...needed to sit down to let him finish talking

Proof that we were really at the cathedral

The back (or front, or side, I don't know) of the cathedral

Salamanca's Plaza Mayor

Trying hornazo for the first time - quite yummy

My two families meeting for the first time

Day 6: Head to downtown Pamplona around noon and walk around the city. From there we head to the family's favorite restaurant, Common Good. We head back home but stop at the grocery store to pick up food for the dinner tonight. 

The neighbors come over to the house around 7:15pm. It is very interesting to watch my dad, who speaks no Spanish, talk with the neighbors, who speak only a little English. After some funny conversation, the neighbors leave to a Christmas party, and we get ready for ours at Virginia's uncle's house at 9:30pm.

At the dinner table, we are protected on both sides by Leo and Virginia, like language guards, so we will be able to talk with everyone at the party. The matriarchs of the house serve us all of our food.
First course: Goat cheese with caramelized onions and walnuts, shrimp with heads on, bread and olive oil that one uncle's business made, smoked salmon with baby eels inside, jamon, potato salad, meatballs, and other tapas dishes. 
Second course: Bouillon soup. 
Main course: Cordero, lamb "so young that it hasn't even had its mothers milk" and/or lasagna.

One of the uncles gives me the honor of opening a fine champagne bottle and I do it effortlessly, after ten minutes of struggling. Then, during dessert, which is assorted chocolates and sorbete de pacharan, a delicious concoction of ice cream, alcohol, and sorbet, we hear a bell ringing, and all the kids run outside to look for Santa Claus. There are gifts waiting outside for everyone, including me and my parents. The rest of the night all the kids and adults are playing with their presents. We party all night until about 2am.

Thoughts: Everywhere I go with Virginia and Leo, we see either friends or family! They are famous here, and we saw friends of theirs downtown. It was a complete surprise and absolutely amazing to share in the celebration of my host family's family Christmas celebration. 
It was explained to me that the 6th of January is the normal day they celebrate Christmas, but because it's so close to when the kids go back to school, they open one gift on Christmas eve. 

The boys on the memorial for those hurt/killed during the running of the bulls

Rodrigo, and behind are Euskara people with their holiday dress on

Olentzero, the Basque equivalent to Santa Claus, climbing into someone's house

The whole family at the Pamplona town hall

The boys and I in the Plaza del Castillo

Practicing for the running of the bulls. I'm not doing too well

Countdown until the next Fiesta San Fermin

The appetizers that Virginia prepared for dinner

Piece of cake! Only three people were injured when I opened it

Dinner table

"I got a gift!"

Santa (Leo &Virginia) is so generous

Arthuur excited about his new tank

Virginia and her aunt dancing

Leo is so hip

Day 7: Wake up in the late morning and have breakfast with the family as we talk about the differences in cultures and how interesting it is to learn new cultures. 

After breakfast, my parents give the boys and the parents some Christmas presents. They really like their gifts and play with them all morning. Virginia starts cooking paella, since we are hosting lunch. We just relax and hang out until the guests arrive and we head downstairs to eat. 

After some delicious paella, codero (better than last night's), lasagna with albondigas, and dessert, we play Sjoelen (Dutch shuffleboard) and my dad and Leo really enjoy it and play for about an hour after the rest of us stop.

A bit later, we go over to the neighbor's house. We sit around, talk, eat, and share some great stories. We give Emilio, Maria Asun, Emilio (jr.), and Tatun the game Scrabble for a gift, so they can improve their english.

Thoughts: I can't eat anymore! I weigh at least 5lbs (2kg) more than I did before we got to Pamplona. It's the holidays so I'll just enjoy it now and pay for it later.

My mom giving the kids gifts on Christmas morning

Virginia and Leo opening their gift

Virginia playing the piano while we relax

The most entertaining hosts in Spain

Yummmm, paella

My dad and Leo playing an intense game

My other Spanish family (from left to right - Maria Asun, Tatun, Emilio, and Emilio)

Final thoughts: Usually my mom plans all of our trips ahead of time, but since this trip was a bit last minute,we decided to be spontaneous and book hotels in the city when we got there. We found some amazing deals, but it was a bit more stressful, looking for a hotel at 10 o'clock at night. We will plan the New Year's portion of our trip more systematically.

Orange trees are everywhere in southern Spain. Bathrooms in southern Spanish restaurants and bars are free even if you don't eat there. Plus, they are available for free in parking garages. It seems winter is a great time to travel Spain since its off season and discounts abound. Total driving time was about 19 hours over 5 days.

Follow us as we do another road trip for New Year's.

Location: Spain


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