Thursday, January 2, 2020

Weekend Adventures {Florence, Italy}

We took an insanely quick weekend to visit one of our favorite cities of all time -- Florence, Italy.  Trevor and I both studied in Florence in college (we went separate summers) but both feel so comfortable within the city and have seen most of the major museums and things the city has to offer.  But neither of us had been back since we left so many years ago so cheap flights + a free weekend meant we spent roughly 48 hours in our favorite city, this time together and with our daughter and it was amazing.
we also went with our very good friend Melissa
So this post is not necessarily about what to see and do in Florence but I will tell you where to eat.  Because that is basically what we did this trip -- eat and drink, and we ate and drank well because it is Italy.

We flew into Pisa, Italy which is a very small airport but very well connected.  There is a quick tram ride from the airport to the train station in Pisa.  Follow signs in the airport for Pisamover (yes that is what it is called and it is all well marked).

We made a super quick stop in Pisa to see the Leaning Tower -- it is about a 20 minute walk from the train station (and honestly the fastest way to the Tower unless you take a taxi).  While the Tower is awesome to see, there is nothing else in Pisa (in our opinion) so you don't need more than a half day.  We didn't go up the tower but you can (you can also go into the church and baptistery).

Getting to Florence from Pisa is also very easy -- lots of trains running between the two cities, at least one an hour.  Just buy a ticket at one of the many automated machines and make sure you validate it (punch it in one of the many machines) before getting on the train.  Same for returning back to Pisa -- buy your ticket at an automated machine and punch it before getting on the train.

Once in Florence, we stayed near the Accademia (right across the street to be exact).  There isn't really a bad location in Florence as long as you are on the main side of the Arno river (so same side as the Accademia, the Duomo, etc.).

We did go see the David at the Accademia because Trevor had never been and it worked out perfect because our little lady was obsessed with all the statues, especially the David.  I recommend getting tickets ahead of time (they are timed entry tickets).  We also went first thing in the morning and in the off season so we practically had the place to ourselves which was really nice.  For any museum in Florence, I would highly recommend getting tickets in advance.

We hiked (yes, because it is a large hill) up to Pizzale Michelangelo to get gorgeous views of the city and also to relive so many of our afternoons in Florence.  I cannot tell you how many times we hiked up that hill the summer I lived in Florence -- for fun, for soccer games in the park, for choir concerts at the church all the way at the top (required by my religion class).  And while insanely touristy, we got wine at the top and it was seriously one of the best glasses of white we had ever had that included a good and juicy strawberry.  It was perfect.

We also went to the Medici Chapels which are chapels within the Basilica of San Lorenzo -- the chapels honor the Medici family and was created by Michelangelo.  It really is very cool and worth a stop if you have time.  Then we mostly just wandered through the city going past our old school(s) and places we lived; it was amazing.

As for where to eat in the city -- lucky for us when Trevor and I lived in Florence we got two home cooked meals per day and they were amazing.  But for the other meal we almost always ate at Ristorante La Spada which has the best roasted chicken and potatoes you will ever have in your entire life.  Yes, go to Italy for the chicken, but you will not regret it. Their lasagna is also to die for, everything is good.  Back in the day we used to get the chicken to go but this trip we sat down in the restaurant for dinner and it was so much fun!  We ate dinner our second night at Coquinarius and it was also to die for.  I had the wild boar ragu and it was so good, I legit wanted to lick my plate!  For lunch we ate at I Fratellini for lunch which is an actual hole in the wall place, no seating -- eat on the sidewalk or wherever!  It is a sandwich shop and it was so freaking good.  Get a small glass of wine to go with your food and you will have the best lunch ever -- just know that this place always has a line, but it moves quickly.  And finally, you can't go to Italy without eating gelato at least three times a day and you must have it at Perche No, it is the best in the city (in our opinion).
So there you have it -- an insanely quick weekend away to one of the best cities in the whole world!  And for those with kids, Italians love children and our Peanut was treated like a princess wherever we went.  Of course eating out with kids in Italy is insanely easy as well because every restaurant will make you butter noddles + Parmesan cheese (Serafina's plain noodles with butter + cheese were so good we wanted to order extra for the adults)!

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Weekend Adventures {Barcelona, Spain}

For Thanksgiving this year, we took a longer weekend away to Barcelona with two other families -- and we had a blast!  We did some stuff on our own and some with our friends, it was a perfect to see what we all wanted to see while also enjoying some time with the other families.
We stayed here and while the location and room were amazing, we had some unpleasant neighbors which really was not fun to deal with.  We used public transportation (the metro) a lot and it was so easy to navigate, one of the better systems we have used.  If you plan on using the metro, then I recommend getting a day pass (or multi day pass) -- very easy to buy at the automated machines in the metro stations, but we did take a taxi to/from the airport as it was easiest and not that expensive.  Also, Barcelona is a big tourist destination, I highly recommend getting tickets in advance for the popular sights.  While we went in a more off season time, we were still happy to have tickets in advance, especially for Sagrada Familia and Park Güell.

Barcelona has a lot to do and because we wanted to see as much as we could in three full days, we packed it.  So here is all we did and my tips/tricks as well -- 

Casa Batlló
Casa Batlló is a Gaudí designed house on the Block of Discord (known for the three houses with colorful facades) and was actually very fun and kid friendly.  We did buy tickets in advance, but probably didn't need to.  We checked the stroller, got our amazing audio-guides and explored the insanely weird but cool house.  The audio-guide was interactive which entertained Serafina (who also loved all the the crazy colors and tile).  The roof was very impressive and we all really liked the house.  Serafina is still talking about it -- this might have been one of her more favorite museum type things we have done.

Museu Picasso (Picasso Museum)
Pablo Picasso spent quite a few years in Barcelona and mastered his realistic painting style in the city.  The museum doesn't have the famous Cubist works but you will see many of Picasso's work from his earlier life/career and we really liked the museum.  And so did Serafina.  I can't remember if backpacks were allowed but we did check ours -- we did bring the stroller throughout the museum as Serafina was pretty tired and wanted to rest (there was an elevator that required someone to take you up and down).
Park Güell 
Another Gaudí designed part of the city -- this time it was supposed to be an upscale housing development, but now a gorgeous park overlooking the city.  Serafina seriously loved the park, she could run, explore and there was always something fun to see.  Part of the park requires a timed entry ticket and I highly recommend going into the Monumental Zone -- while crowded, it really was cool to see.  You can spend as long as you want within the Monumental Zone but once you leave, you can't return.  And while it is a park, there are no playgrounds but plenty of spaces for kids to run (and sort of stroller friendly -- lots of stairs).

Sagrada Familia
Antoni Gaudi's masterpiece and probably one of the most well known churches in the world (and with good reason, it was amazing).  The church is unfinished so it will constantly have scaffolding and work being done -- but also means you can go each year and see something new.  Advance tickets are a must (buy here -- and note that children under 6 aren't allowed to go up the towers, so we could not do that this trip).  The church also has a long (and strict) check in process, so be prepared to go through bag checks and x-ray machines.  And speaking from experience, don't bring large bottles of liquids (like beer you plan on sharing with your friends later) into the church).  The church was gorgeous and dramatic and unreal -- just spend time walking around and taking it all in.  We stayed right by the church and got to see it from the outside quite often and Serafina just loved it, our true church loving gal was so sad we only got to in once!

Las Ramblas
The gorgeous and famous boulevard running from Plaça de Catalunya down to the water.  The boulevard has a gorgeous and wide pedestrian strip in the middle making it a very easy (and worthwhile) place to walk.  And of course you must stop into La Boqueria Market -- the most famous market hall in Barcelona (and most central).  It has so many stalls with different types of food.  We grabbed a wide range of treats and more to have as a picnic up at....
Montjuïc is a large hill that overlooks the port with a large castle/fortress as well as the area that has hosted the world's fair in 1929 and more recently, the 1992 Summer Olympics.  To get to Montjuïc, we took the metro from the end of Las Ramblas (near the Columbus Monument) to the closest metro station to the Teleferic de Montjuic (the cable car) and road that up the mountain -- which was quite fun and the kids loved it.  We went straight to castle and while not a lot to see, the views were gorgeous (but do remember that this castle/hill was used as the place of many political executions during the Franco area).  We also had a lovely picnic up near the castle.

We then chose to walk down the hill so we could go see the various sights of the 1992 Summer Olympics.  We didn't go to the museum, but walked into the Olympic Stadium which was so cool to see (this was the sight of the amazing lighting of the Olympic flame by an archer + arrow).  We then made our way to...

Plaça d'Espanya
While mostly just a large roundabout -- go to the bullring mall, called Las Arenas, to the top floor and look back at the esplanade with the Magic Fountain -- this was the sight of the World's Fair in 1929.  The fountain puts on a huge lights/music show in the evenings, just be aware of the times and such (because we went in the off seasons, we didn't get a chance to see the performance).

We also took a day trip into the mountains to Montserrat which is famous for its monastery sitting on the mountain top.  Getting to Monserrat from Barcelona is quite easy -- the trains leave hourly from Plaça d'Espanya and it takes about an hour.  We opted to get off at the first stop for Monserrat and take the cable car up to the top (which was quite high and scared the crap out of me!).  I recommend getting the train/cable car combo ticket when you buy your train tickets in Barcelona -- will save you a little time because you don't have to wait in line for the cable car ticket.  We took the rack railway back down the mountain which was also very easy (again get the combo ticket and you'll switch trains to head back to Barcelona at the second rack railway stop).  And Monserrat is a huge tourist destination so be prepared for crowds so matter when you go.
Once at the top, everything is fairly close together -- we didn't bring a stroller but we saw people who did.  While on a hill, it was easy to get around. There is a large cafeteria and a restaurant buffet place, but we opted to bring our own snacks to have a picnic.  We went into the monastery and joined the line to touch La Moreneta -- the famous tanned Virgin Mary (that has darkened over time).  She is behind a glass, but you can touch the royal orb (or as Serafina calls it "the ball").  We also took the Sant Joan Funicular to the actual top and hiked down.  We hiked the steep but easier path back down (very wide and concrete -- hard to miss or get lost).  The views at the top and the walk back down were amazing, especially since the clouds cleared!

So -- eating in Barcelona.  We did not eat any Spanish food, not once.  We can get Spanish food anytime we want and since we were in a bigger city, we went with food we knew we couldn't find easily in our part of Spain.  Breakfast was typically in our apartment, lunch was on the go (picnics or take away food).  We had Thanksgiving dinner at La Taqueria (Mexican food) and it was amazing.  It had actual spice -- like make you cry and sweat spice.  We were all in heaven!  We ate (and drank) at Barcelona Beer Company, the food wasn't great (typical pub food) but the beer was amazing.  And finally we loved Via Napoli (Italian), such good food and a great kids menu.

I can't believe it has taken us this long to get to Barcelona but we loved it and now need to figure out how to get back before our time here in Spain is up!

Quick note about safety -- Barcelona (and Catalonia) have been in the news lately (2017 Las Ramblas attack, the vote for independence and then the arrest of those leading the pro-independence movement (just this past October)).  There have been many protests and marches -- it hasn't always been the safest place to visit recently.  However, we never felt unsafe, never saw any protests and thoroughly enjoyed our time in Barcelona.  Like any trip/travel we do, we follow the State Department travel warnings which are usually very helpful and accurate.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Weekend Adventures {Bilbao & San Sebastian, Spain}

We took a weekend away (with my mom in tow) to northern Spain in mid-October.  Specifically we went to Bilbao and San Sebastian. along with a few other smaller towns along the way.  We flew in and out of Bilbao* and rented a car which I highly recommend -- there are trains and buses connecting most of the towns in the region, but it takes much longer and just easier with a car.
The region we went to in Northern Spain is known as Basque Country.  The region crosses into France, but we stayed on the Spanish side.  The region has their own language, Euskara which is quite interesting to listen to – it is considered an isolate language.  More recently, the Basque on the Spanish side were heavily punished by going against the Franco regime – this is when the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or Basque Homeland and Freedom) group started.  Franco tried (and in many ways succeeded) to squash the Basque culture, especially by banishing the Basque language.  While the group was active until 2011, the region is completely safe and a must visit.  The Basque language is being used (and taught) again and the culture of the people and region is alive and well.  Just know that many of those living in and from the area call themselves Basque, not Spanish or French.  In fact most will say you are not in Spain or France, you are in Euskadi (or Basque Country).  And also know that while most people will speak Spanish (or French if on the French side), Euskara is written first for almost everything – menus, street signs, etc.  On the Spain side, Spanish was then next and then English (if it was there at all).  This is an insanely simple history of the people and region -- it really is fascinating if you care to learn more!

The food alone is a reason to visit the Basque Country.  The region is famous for its food – bar hopping and sampling various pintxos (small plates) while also sampling the sidra (hard cider) and txakoli (lightly sparkling white wine) -- both of these drinks are usually poured from high up to create aeration (and fun to watch).  San Sebastian has one of the highest Michelin stars per capita (I believe second highest in the world).  The city has THREE three starred restaurants (the highest number of stars possible), but be prepared to book months in advance and shell out 200+ per person for a meal!  So even if a Michelin starred restaurant is not in your budget, the region knows its food and should not be missed.  And also, just try everything – I typically hate seafood (and yes, I have tried most of it before) but I didn’t hesitate when I ate sardines and bacalao (cod fish) and it was all amazing.  Pintxos are usually served a little earlier than a typical Spanish eating hours -- so start your pintxo bar hop about noon for lunch or 8PM for dinner.  The majority of your time in this area will be eating, so plan accordingly.   
Bilbao is the biggest city in the region and has more to do (in terms of museums and such) and one of the main reasons we stayed there.  We stayed here at a great AirBnB and the area was good but not a lot of food options nearby (or parking -- make sure to get a hotel or AirBnB with parking included).  Bilbao (and the whole region) is very hilly and mountainous which makes for some gorgeous scenery but also makes it rough to get around at times!  Bilbao had plenty of escalators and elevators so you weren't stuck hiking up the hills all the time.  Bilbao does have a metro/tram system but it was easier just to walk most places.

We spent one full day in Bilbao walking around enjoying the sights, going to museums and eating.  Bilbao is a great city to walk and enjoy the various architecture styles -- we did a big loop from the Old Town (Casco Viejo) down the river to past the Guggenheim Museum and back (we mostly followed the Lonely Planet Walk for Bilbao).

The Guggenheim Museum was amazing and actually really great for kids -- the famous architect Frank Gehry designed the building which opened in 1997.  Outside the museum other artists have added their works -- the giant spider named Maman or the pool of water that emits mist (which was very cool).  And then of course the famous Puppy made up of thousands of begonia flowers.  Sadly Puppy was covered in scaffolding and our poor sweet girl was so sad, she was looking forward to seeing the giant "flower puppy."  Inside the museum, the best part was the huge Matter of Time sculpture which you can walk around and through (Serafina loved this part).  There was also a small kids play area off to the side of this huge room that was fairly decent -- good place to let kiddos play while the adults take turns walking around the museum.  The stroller was easy to use within the museum, you just need to check larger backpacks.

We didn't have time to go into the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) but heard good things and it was in the middle of a large park -- good place for kids to play at the playground or run around!  Bilbao had the most amazing playgrounds and they were everywhere and we probably had to play at all of them :)  We also tried real hard to make it to the Euskal Museoa (Basque Museum) but we kept hitting closing times.  We did for sure go to Casco Viejo (the old town/quarter) to eat pintxos.  Highly recommend started (and ending) in Plaza Nueva -- its a great way to try a bunch of pintxo bars.  Most of the bars have tables outside, but if you snag a seat within the plaza you can just do counter orders at various bars to try different places.  Our favorite place was Bar Gure Toki but there are plenty of bars to choose from within the plaza and around.  And once again, just point to whatever looks good and go for it!
We spent another full day in San Sebastian (which is about an hour drive from Bilbao).  San Sebastian is gorgeous -- the beach is a must see, seriously Playa de la Concha is one of the most gorgeous beaches ever.  Sadly we weren't there on a sunny day so no enjoying the beach, but we did go to the Aquarium and it was amazing.  One of the best aquariums we have been to and our little lady had so much fun!  We also went up to Monte Igueldo for insanely amazing views of the city.  There is also a mini amusement park at the top but it was closed when we went.  You can take a funicular to the top, but we drove up and parked (similar price for both).

And we couldn't go to San Sebastian without eating -- so we did a food tour that was amazing.  We went with San Sebastian Walking Tours and it was perfect.  They were so accommodating with Serafina and also didn't charge us for her (every single other tour I found wanted to charge the same price for adults and kids.... uh, no).  Our tour guide was so knowledgeable and fun -- we learned a lot but also had a wonderful time.  We went to five different pintxo bars -- tried a pintxo at each as well as a drink.  All were amazing.  And most pintxos were seafood but I ate them all and they were all amazing; the drinks were really good too.  Seriously, if you are going to San Sebastian, you have to do a food tour with San Sebastian Walking Tours.
Here are some other food recommendations for San Sebastian -- you could do a food tour for lunch and hit up these places for dinner!  Gandarias is a pintxo bar but also a restaurant, both are good (but make reservations for the restaurant).  Borda Berri is a good place to try pintxos with Basque cheese.  Bar Sport is a good place to try foie (different than foie gras and don't think about what it is -- just eat it).  And finally you must go to La Vina for cheesecake.  We were so sad that La Vina wasn't open while we were there because we have heard from numerous people how amazing the cheesecake is.  Guess it is a reason to go back! 

We also had a half day to explore some of the smaller towns in the region.  We happened to be in the area on a Spanish holiday weekend as well as during high surf times (and the region is known for some good surfing), so with that said -- we tried to go to two different towns and legit could NOT find parking.... We drove through Mundaka and Portugalete and while we had gorgeous views of the sea and town, we literally could not find a place to park.  We did finally find a place to park in Bermeo and walked the small beach boardwalk and enjoyed watching all the surfers.  We had planned to stop in Gernika, famous for Picasso's painting, but Serafina was asleep in the car!  If you go -- stop at Foruria for food, it is owned by a friend's uncle.  Also in this area is San Juan de Gazteluatxe which is a small island that has a hermitage -- now very famous for Game of Thrones being filmed there.  If you go, go early and be prepared for a serious hike down to the island (and then back up).  We had friends go to the same weekend and they watched someone get medivac-ed out by helicopter!   

Everywhere we went people spoke English, but we mostly used Spanish and did just fine.  I had no problems eating any of the pintxos with my food allergies, but I did ask if items contained nuts before I started eating.  We all loved the Basque Country and would for sure go back, especially to eat more yummy food!

*Just a warning -- where the airport in Bilbao is located (basically in a valley) allows for some serious crosswinds which can make for some bumpy and a little scary landings and take offs.  Our landing in Bilbao was quite the roller coaster ride but still very safe!

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