Our second big international trip with James. The first one didn’t scare us off? Are we crazy? Probably.
Italy with a 15 month old was tough, but I was optimistic this trip would be easier for several reasons:
- James was a different child one year later than Italy– though still very active and energetic.
- We were bringing/meeting help in the form of our cousin Sam and James’s grandmother (Nonna).
- We were more experienced travelling with a child.
You can go back and read my planning post (link) for more thoughts on that, as well as how we ended up at our final itinerary – after several changes (indecisive planning, terrorist concerns, etc.). To summarize, we had a full 21 nights. 12 would be spent in Spain and 9 in France.
France and Spain are two pretty prominent countries for American tourists. We had never been to Spain and had only been to Paris in France. We were excited to get to both countries and – in our typical travel fashion – visit several places in each.
For some usual intro stuff…France and Spain are pretty comparable in size – with France being about 25% larger than Spain by land mass area. Both are pretty small compared to the United States (each at roughly 15% of the area of the US).
Population is similar. France is right at 67 million people, which is about 45% more than Spain’s 46 million. The US checks in at 325 million in 2017 – or 3 times the combined population of France and Spain.
One thing you might notice from those numbers is that both France and Spain are much more densely populated than the US (about 3 times more densely populated). That’s not something I would guess driving through either country in seemingly endless farm/green space.
Spain has some very interesting history and cultural influence – things that are still on my list on which to do some more reading. Spain is made up of several different regions with very different backgrounds/heritages. There are Basque regions (Sam’s heritage), the Catalan regions (Barcelona) which are currently in the news, the Moops Moors/muslim influenced areas, and so on. Again, I’m not an expert, but it does seem pretty interesting and diverse.
France has many different regions/influences as well – including areas along the German border that seemed to constantly switch hands between France and Germany. It just doesn’t seem to be quite as unique as Spain – though that probably results more from my ignorance of the different areas.
That’s the end of my typical intro spiel on the countries. Back to the trip.
Planning was a little easier this time around (other than all the itinerary changes). Knowing we’d have Sam with us for the trip allowed me to plan some things for just me and Alyce. It also gave me more confidence for when all of us went out to eat.
One complication was that I knew we’d need a big car or van. Our station wagon in Italy barely held the three of us and now we’d be adding a fourth person. So I rented a big van just to be safe, and we were very happy to have the space.
For flights, I was able to secure 4 business class seats on Iberia JFK-MAD-EAS, which anyone who has tried to book business awards for 4 people knows is quite the feat. I credit this mostly to Iberia’s married fares/segments. They commonly release more award space if you connect through Madrid to a small airport than if you just fly to Madrid and stop your journey there. It’s arguable if that makes sense from Iberia’s standpoint, but it’s what they do. And we took advantage of it.
Our flight back, we flew economy on Delta. I had status, so we got economy plus seats. I also left a middle seat open in our row of 4 hoping it would stay open knowing anyone who chose it would gladly change for the aisle – and the seat did stay open. That left us with 4 seats for the 3 of us. Not bad. Sam and Mrs. Jena flew back on a separate American Airlines flight. Our flight was booked with “cash.” I used a voucher for my ticket. James and Alyce’s seats were booked with cash equivalent points. One note was that it was about $1200 to fly one way per person and only $545 or so to fly round trip MAD-MSY. So I went ahead and booked the round trip flights. As you might guess, we did not take the return MSY-MAD flight.
As is commonly the theme for English speaking tourists, we had very minimal communication issues. Of course there will be times when conversing is difficult, but overall we have it pretty easy. Both countries are on the Euro, so that was easy enough.
My cell phone was unlocked, and I bought an Orange data sim card before our trip off of Ebay. It worked great in both countries and was cheap. When staying in apartments, you pretty much have to have cell access right away.
That’s enough intro. On to the trip…
Travel to San Sebastian (Day 0)
Our Delta flight to JFK departed at 11:00, so we didn’t have to beat the sun up – but we also didn’t have time to lounge around the house all day either. Our DL flight to JFK and Iberia flights were different tickets. I don’t like doing that, but it was our only option. Plus, the flight was non-stop and we had a 5 hour layover. It would have to be a pretty substantial delay for us to miss the flight.
My parents dropped us off. We made sure Samantha stayed at either our house or my parents to avoid any running behind schedule. That was just an extra precaution. No pre-existing reason for it…..
James was at an age that he actually understood airplanes and flying. We had been talking up the idea of riding on a plane, and he was excited about it. He had flown on 7 previous flights with no issues. The flight to New York was going to be his 8th flight. He was running around the airport looking at all the planes out the windows prior to boarding and was ready to get on the plane.
At least until we actually got on the plane.
We were in economy in two rows of two seats. Walking back to our spots, James started saying that he wanted to get out. And became more emphatic about it every time he said it. By the time we were actually in our seats, he was wailing. And I mean top of his lungs, the whole plane is trying to see what is going on screaming.
Families board early with Delta, so we had a good bit of time to get him settled. We tried everything – suckers, tablet, gold fish, you name it. He wasn’t having it. He knew one thing, and that was that he wanted off the plane.
After the flight had boarded, he was still screaming. A flight attendant came back to talk to us to see what was going on and make sure he was buckled into his own seatbelt (not on his mom’s lap). He had actually started to calm down on Alyce’s lap, but she was insistent. That set him off again.
Now, I’m a rule follower. I’m sympathetic to the fact that the flight attendant was just following rules. But she was over the top with it. Children under two can fly as lap infants. James was barely over two. She probably wouldn’t have even known if we hadn’t told her. There was zero practical difference between a 2 year old and James at a couple months over 2. Combine that with the scene she had just saw and that he was calming down, she should have just let it slide. No one on any other flight paid any attention to whether James was buckled in his seat belt. Again, I’m sympathetic to the rules, but practicality has to factor in at some point. I doubt the one pound he gained in the brief time since his second birthday had any practical effect.
Anyway, once we were airborne, Alyce held him again. He settled and did not freak out like that on any of our other flights/train rides/car rides. But it was bad – very bad – for about an hour. I was going over cancellation policies in my head because if he had fussed like that the entire flight, there was no way we were hopping on a flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
Other than that, the flight was fine. We had no trouble collecting our bags, changing terminals, checking in with Iberia, and reclearing security when we landed.
Iberia uses the British Airways Lounge at JFK. It was a pretty nice lounge with a good selection of food and drinks, but the best feature of all was the family room in the lounge. Hallelujah!
We parked in there and were extremely happy. James could act like a kid without disturbing anyone. We could go get all the food and drinks we wanted. I signed into the wifi and watched part of the LSU game. Not a bad way to kill 4 hours.
Speaking of LSU games, I messed up the time zones/boarding times the year before on our Italy trip with the distraction of the LSU game. That was not happening this year. We were at the gate with plenty of time.
It was an absolute zoo. There were two huge planes boarding right next to each other in what seemed to be a tiny area of the terminal. Extremely luckily, an Iberia employee saw us standing there with James and pulled us up to the front for family boarding – at least I guess that’s what happened. We were one of the first ones on the plane either way.
James had fallen asleep in the carrier by this point. We figured he was probably going to be done for the night. Wrong.
He did fuss a little when he woke up, but that had mostly to do with being confused waking up in a strange place. He recovered quickly and was maybe the biggest fan of all of business class – well, Sam gave him a run for his money.
The seats were solid business class seats – as so many seem to be these days. They were in a straight ahead 1-2-1 configuration, which was perfect for James. No pre-departure beverages were served, which were needed after the zoo boarding. Not even water – which was pretty odd on a business class international flight that takes almost an hour to board and get going.
Other than that, the flight attendants were laid back and very friendly. The food was good for a flight.
As mentioned, James got a second wind and was playing with all the buttons on the seat and loved the personal TV. He hit the flight attendant button a few too many times, so we had to take the remote away from him. Despite having his bed set up, he refused to fall asleep for something like 3-4 hours – leaving Alyce and I with very little sleep. He did finally crash, which allowed Alyce and I to catch a quick cat-nap.
We landed in Madrid and cleared immigrations quickly and easily. Finding our next gate was pretty easy too. James was a zombie at this point, but he wasn’t fussing or complaining. Alyce snuck in a quick diaper change for him before we walked outside to board our next flight on a prop plane to San Sebastian.
Even though we had 3 seats booked for the flight, I sat next to Alyce to help out and she just held James on her lap – the flight attendants did not give us as much as a second glance (the rows were 2×2 seating) with James on Alyce’s lap. It was a very quick flight…maybe 35-40 minutes.
At San Sebastian, we collected all of our luggage and walked right through customs. I had pre-booked a transfer to our apartment so that we’d have a carseat. They were waiting for us…but had put a booster seat in the car – defeating the purpose. I know I had told them the type of seat and age of the child via email. Oh well, we made it safely. We were worn out, but our intro to San Sebastian perked everyone up.
San Sebastian is on the Northeast coast of Spain, about an hour drive from France. Culturally, it is part of the Basque region/heritage of Spain. Samantha was our Basque expert of the trip – being that her grandfather’s family was from the area. The Basque region actually stretches into Southwestern France – giving the two areas stronger ties to each other than their actual home countries.
San Sebastian is not a particularly large city with a metro population under 200,000. Despite that, it boasts the highest density of Michelin starred restaurants anywhere outside of Kyoto. Which is nice, but many people prefer the casual dining of San Sebastian – a testament to the casual dining scene…not an indictment on the Michelin restaurants.
Of course, you can’t describe San Sebastian without mentioning the two beaches that run nearly the length of the city. We were introduced to the beach very quickly upon arrival…
Day 1 – San Sebastian
After getting dropped off by our driver, we had about an hour to kill before our apartment would be ready. What better way to spend it than walking across the street and checking out the beach. It was great. Everyone was happy; James especially was loving it. The weather was beautiful. It immediately reminds you why you go through the hassle of traveling – especially with a 2 year old.
When it was time to check in, we walked back across the street and brought our stuff up. The apartment was very nice – not the most spacious we ever stayed in, but the balcony and view were amazing. And it was plenty spacious enough for a 4 night stay.
It was located right on Zurriola beach, and we were very happy with the location. La Concha beach is the bigger/”main” beach, but Zurriola is more the surfer and locals beach. We thought it was fantastic. It was also a very quick walk to the historic downtown area where all the Tapas bars were located. Plus, you couldn’t seem to walk a block without stumbling on a children’s park/playground.
After getting settled, we regrouped and headed out. Already, it was apparent how helpful it would be having Sam with us. She was Johnny on the spot helping Alyce get everything she needed for James.
We took the quick walk to old town and strolled through the streets. I had a bunch of tapas places on my radar, but it was Sunday and many were closed. La Cep was open, so we popped in. There was a bit of a learning curve, and no one spoke great English. Pintxos/tapas were set out…you just go ahead and take what you want, and they either keep tab or count toothpicks (no one seems that concerned).
I don’t know much Spanish, but I do know “vino” (wine) and “rojo” (red)…and tres. As far as I was concerned, that should cover most of my language needs for the trip.
We had a couple glasses of wine and some tapas/ham. All of it was good – and cheap. Wine was less than 2 euros a glass for what was decent wine. By this time, we were all getting a little pooped out.
We strolled through the downtown streets a little more, and – in what is becoming an Ittmann family vacation tradition – James lost one of his shoes.
Alyce was pretty upset that it happened again, but oh well – life goes on. It was about 8:00 p.m. when we got back and we all knocked out pretty quickly. James had a pack and play (that they initially forgot, but rectified pretty quickly) set up in a small living area with a door that closed. He had some trouble going to sleep but did ok overall.
Day 2 (San Sebastian Day #2)
We all slept till around 11:00 in the morning. No worries – nothing urgent planned the first couple mornings. Chalk that up to lessons learned from Italy. That said, we did have 1:00 reservations at Rekondo. Something I thought would give us a leisurely morning, but we actually ended up having to get moving with a sense or urgency thanks to our very late start.
Rekondo has good food, but it is famous worldwide for its extremely extensive cellar and equally reasonable pricing of that wine. It also had a nice outside patio with a view of the Ocean off in the distance. I thought lunch outside on a patio would be perfect for James.
It was raining off and on. So inside we went. We were also only one of two tables seated at first, so it was very quiet…and more formal than I was expecting. I was thinking that it might have been a mistake to bring James there. But Alyce, Sam, and I spent time with him outside, which he loved. Also, when the lunch crowd picked up, there was more noise and a more casual feeling – definitely a welcome change.
The food itself was very good Basque/Spanish styled food. The wine was even better. We drank a 30 year old quality bottle of Rioja for 40 euros. That amount buys you bargain basement grocery store plonk in US restaurants. In hindsight, we should have sat there and drank all afternoon. But James is a pretty active little guy, and, after so much time in a restaurant (it was a pretty long meal as is), you’re ready to get going.
The restaurant called us a taxi, and it was nearly 6:00 by the time we got back to the apartment. We relaxed for a little bit then decide to go check out the “big” beach. We walked nearly the length of it, which is a pretty good stroll. James slept for a while, then woke up fussing for milk. We started heading back at that point.
There was a pizza place right next to the apartment, and they sold take out. We picked some up for James/just to have around. We got James settled with Sam, and then Alyce and I went walking back out for some tapas and wine. It was Monday, so a lot of places were still closed. We first went back to La Cep – this time as old pros. We knew to just grab a plate and some bites. We popped in to one other place for a glass of wine – it wasn’t really memorable – before heading home.
James was finishing up a movie, and Sam gave him a good report. These little excursions for Alyce and I were great and a welcomed change from Italy. Sam was a life saver. She earned her keep and then some. She’ll be welcome on any Ittmann trips she can make in the future.
James went to bed. Alyce, Sam, and I hung out on the balcony and split some vino. After a little bit, it was time to go to bed.
Day 3 (San Sebastian Day #3)
We again slept pretty late – about 10:30. For me, that is not odd. I could sleep that late every day if I don’t set an alarm. Alyce and James – not so much. Call it a little bit of jet lag, but – if sleeping till 10:30 is the worst you get jet lagged – that’s nothing to worry about. Of course we could have set an alarm and forced the issue if we had something to do.
Alyce and I had a big lunch planned, and that was pretty much the only thing on the official agenda for the day. It wasn’t until 2:00 though (or at least I thought that was the case), so we had some time in the morning.
Sam and I decided to go walk the paths up Mount Urgull. It was a nice walk and wasn’t overly strenuous (if you’re used to doing real reks/hikes). Still, it is climbing a small mountain.
The views from the top were revealing of most of the city. There were also old forts made into the mountain, and – of course – the big Jesus statue looking over the city.
We made it back to the hotel in time for me to shower and get ready for lunch at Akelarre. I used the San Sebastian taxi app to hail a cab. It was terrible. It took a solid 15-20 minutes just to get our taxi (as was the case the day before at Rekondo). Finally, our taxi arrived.
As we were on our way, I checked the confirmation and realized that our reservation was for 1:30 – and not 2:00 as I was thinking. Don’t know how I made that mistake…At least it hasn’t happened often. I called and apologized profusely. They did not seem concerned.
Akelarre is one of the several 3 star restaurants in the area. I looked into all of them, and Akelarre seemed like the best bet. It had an awesome view looking out over the water and big picture windows across the length of the restaurant.
We were seated, and I looked to pick us out a drink. I got a little nervous at this point, as the first page had prices like 25 euros, 22 euros, 28 euros, and on in that range. Being a very high end restaurant, I was thinking those were by the glass prices. That would be par for the course in a comparable US restaurant. I was disappointed that cheap restaurant wine obviously did not extend to the high end restaurants in Spain
However, I read some more and soon realized those were bottle prices – which is crazy for this type of restaurant. I’ve seen water priced at those levels in some places. Relieved, I chatted with the waiter about wine, and he said we could do a couple different glasses to flow with the meal – while not being the full on 12 glass (or whatever it is) pairing. That’s what we did.
The meal was fantastic. It was playful and creative, while not being over the top about it or getting too out there with the food. We had several stand out courses. It was paced well and the courses flowed in a natural progression. We were very happy with our meal.
We had them call us a taxi for our ride back as we were paying the bill. When we got back, Alyce and I took James to the beach while Sam took some time to explore. James was loving it and could spend all day just running around on the beach. It was easy for us too as he was entertained and we did not have to worry about him running into the street or busting up anything nice on the sidewalk (outside tables, store presentations, etc.).
After the beach, James wanted to take a long “hot shower” – as he called it. I think he was in there for an hour. Alyce, Sam, and I drank some wine and ate some cheese that Sam had picked up.
We hung out for a while, then I caught up on some work stuff. We didn’t want to stay up too late, as Sam and I had a busy day planned for the next one.
Day 4 (San Sebastian Day #4)
We were up a little before 9:00. Sam and I were going to catch the bus to Bilbao to do some exploring and pick up our rental (it was a couple hundred bucks cheaper in Bilbao).
We took the walk to the bus station and bought our tickets at the window (after running into some problems with credit cards at the self serve kiosk…an issue everyone seemed to be having). We took the 10:30 bus, which put us in Bilbao for about 11:45. Our first stop would be the rental place.
We were renting from Europcar. They were easy to deal with and had the best prices on the size car with automatic transmission we needed. Sidebar: I actually booked through the 3rd party site autoeurope as they had even cheaper rates.
They pulled our car around, and it was smaller than I had booked. In describing it, the guy behind the counter made it seem bigger than it was. I clarified that we booked the next size up. He confirmed we did, but offered caution as it was a big Mercedes Viano van. I didn’t care. We needed the space.
So they brought that car back and pulled around our big van. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t prefer driving the smaller car (I think it was a VW golf), but it was just not enough space for us. And we were off in the beast…
I drove to the center of Bilbao and found a parking lot – that the van barely fit in. But it did, and that is what counts. We got out and walked down the river to the Guggenheim museum. It was neat looking museum from the outside, and the inside was very interesting architecturally too. That was probably my favorite part. The art was neat too, but it was mostly modern stuff. Some was out there and not really my style, but they did have some pretty cool art too.
We grabbed a quick bite to eat and drink outside the museum, walked back to the car, and took off back for San Sebastian. The ride back was mostly uneventful – other than the fact that my phone was going in and out a lot…leaving me to wing it on the directions. Somehow we ended up where we were supposed to. There was a parking lot nearby the apartment that worked well for about 15-20 euros.
Alyce reported that she and James had a great day at the beach and playgrounds. She really felt comfortable in San Sebastian and was going to be sad to go. James took another long shower, then the whole group got set to go back out and find some more tapas/pintxos.
James fell asleep while we were walking to the old town. That worked out well, as we just strolled him under the tall table while we ate/drank. Tonight, we went to Atari, and it was very good…Also very crowded.
James eventually woke up. We left not long after that. On the way back, we passed by an ice cream shop…being the last night in San Sebastian, we all indulged.
I would have liked to have headed out at that point to try some more of the pintxos places I had read so much about, but it wasn’t in the cards for this trip. I just walked around with my camera and took some quick pictures instead.
Everyone was asleep shortly after I got back. That was a wrap on San Sebastian. We all thoroughly enjoyed it.
Bordeaux is probably the most famous wine region in the world. It is also one of the largest regions – both in terms of area and quantity. Bordeaux has nearly 7 times the area of land planted with grapes compared to Napa (464 sq. miles to 67 sq. miles per Wikipedia) to give you an idea of scale. There are also many different styles of wine planted in Bordeaux – from the highest of the high end to cheap claret table wine, from sweet whites to muscular reds, etc. Odds are you can find a wine you like from Bordeaux.
Point being of that size comparison, Bordeaux is a spread out region with the actual city of Bordeaux somewhat centered. Still, I decided that St. Emilion would be a better all-around stop. It is an old medieval town surrounded by vineyards. Also, I worked it out so that we would only have one day of longer drives – a day that James and Sam would stay behind.
Bordeaux (the actual city) is one of the larger cities in France and has a lot of history to it too – even serving as the temporary capital of France during several wars. Wine has played a major role in Bordeaux’s status, but its location on the Gironde River and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.
Back to the wine…Bordeaux wine had seen a surge in popularity in the last decade – mainly due to the Chinese practice of gifting. It’s actually quite an interesting story – books have been written on it. It is Chinese custom to give a gift of a level to the person you’re meeting. Bordeaux first growths became the “it” gift (even though many of the Chinese socialites didn’t even really like it and are reported to mix it with coke). This caused a spike in high end Bordeaux prices – culminating in the highly regarded 2009 and 2010 vintages.
Since that time the Chinese government has instituted ethics reform, which has greatly diminished gifting. Bordeaux also had a run of not stellar vintages. These factors combined with formerly loyal Bordeaux customers tired of being price gouged has led to some reduced popularity and resentment for Bordeaux in the fine wine world.
All of that said, there will always be a place for Bordeaux wine with its quality and track record. And we were interested in learning about it.
Day 5 (St. Emilion Day # 1)
We didn’t have to head out at the crack of dawn, but we also couldn’t laze around all morning if we wanted to get some lunch prior to our scheduled wine tastings in the afternoon.
Things went pretty smoothly packing up and getting to the van. At least until a bottle of wine we had fell out of the back of the car and broke. It was a bit of a mess, and we cleaned up as well as we possibly could given what we had. But it definitely added a sense of craziness to the morning. We also had some difficulties getting the car seat set up, but we eventually figured it out.
I was hoping to head out closer to 10:00-10:30, but it was 11:00 by the time we got going. The ride was pretty easy/smooth. There were a lot of tolls, which was kind of a pain.
We made it to Rogue (a wine bar) at Chateua Smith Haut Lafitte at 1:30. Our first tasting was for 2:30, so that did not leave us with a lot of time. We ordered some meats, cheeses, and wine. Given the time constraints, we had to eat quickly. It wasn’t too bad though. The place was also a good spot for James. He could run around outside and pretend he was cooking when inside. He tried his best to sneak some sips of wine in too when we weren’t looking.
After a quick drive to Chateau Haut Bailly, we met our tour guide who had two little boys herself and was (thankfully) very patient. Haut Bailly makes wine that it generally a very good value in Bordeaux fine wine market. For $60-$100 depending on the vintage (Bordeaux differs from Napa in that they regularly vary the prices based on vintage quality), you can get a wine that is just a hair below in quality wine that can cost 10x that amount.
We toured the grounds and tasted the wine. It was excellent and we bought a bottle to bring with us. James was energetic, but the tour lady was patient. Nothing broke, and we made it out right on schedule for our next stop.
Chateau Haut-Brion is one of the four 1855 classified “first growth” estates. Long story short…in 1855, France classified their vineyards based on quality. First growths were the best. These classifications are still relevant over 150 years later – with the first growths commonly demanding a premium. However, there are plenty of wineries that “play up” from there classification (see Pontet Canet…a fifth growth).
Point being, Haut Brion is not an everyday wine for us…or really an anytime wine for us. Still, they graciously welcomed our crew and poured their top wine and the top wine of their sister property – La Mission Haut-Brion. For free.
The tour started with a video presentation in a dark room. It was also a little stuffy with another older couple joining us. I worried that this was a place we shouldn’t have brought James. But he did OK overall, and the other couple opened up after a couple minutes and turned out to be friendly.
The wine was fantastic. I’m sure part of it was the mental build up and knowing what the wine sells for. But I honestly believe it was objectively excellent.
After the tasting was complete, we jumped in the car and still had a decent drive to St. Emilion (recall how spread out the Bordeaux area is). We also hit some afternoon traffic, but we made it eventually and the crew was – mostly – in good spirits.
The house was very nice and had a fenced in yard – perfect for James while we sipped some wine at the picnic table. We had some language barriers with the lady checking us in (they reportedly spoke English, but not much). There was some confusion over whether we wanted to pay for a cleaner, etc. It also was no-frills…Not even toilet paper. Fortunately there was a grocery store nearby.
But before we got to that point, I had to back our big ass van into the tiny ass driveway on a very narrow lane (I hesitate to call it a street). It was rough.
I wasn’t sure that it was going to get in after my 15th pull forward/reverse cycle, but I eventually got it despite looking like Austin Powers…
I made some mental notes on what worked/didn’t work and had much more success every other time. But it was TIGHT. I was honest when I said I wasn’t sure if it was going to make it in. The perspective in the below picture doesn’t give you the whole story, but it gives you a partial idea.
We were tired but decided to walk into town (only a minute or two to the beginning of St. Emilion – the location was excellent). We didn’t venture too far in and stopped at Table 38 for dinner.
Table 38 was a somewhat small, casual little restaurant. They had hamburgers (with a French flair)…and French Fries! We had figured out by this point that James was loving and eating fries. James’s mom loves when he eats. I love when everyone is happy. So fries on the menu was a good thing.
We killed a bottle of wine, and the burgers hit the spot for all of us. Sometimes you just need a burger…James had a rough moment or two at first, but we got him settled with Woody/Buzz on the Kindle. We all enjoyed the meal.
We made the treck back up to the house (St. Emilion is very hilly). I caught up on some work/computer and we called it a night.
Day 6 (St. Emilion Day # 2)
This day didn’t have a particularly early start…but we still seemed to end up rushing to our 10:30 appointment just on the other side of St. Emilion. At least we had coffee – I’ve seen what happens when that doesn’t happen and it isn’t pretty.
We ended up making it pretty much on time to our visit at Canon La Gaffeliere. Canon La Gaffeliere is located in St. Emilion, which makes it a “Right Bank” winery – as it is on the right bank on the Gironde. As a general rule, right bank wines are predominately merlot. But, they are typically pretty different than a California merlot.
Note: there are a lot of wineries with similar names in Bordeaux. For example, we went to Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere. Other wineries in the area are Chateau La Gaffeliere and Chateau Canon.
A nice lady gave us our tour at Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere. She was also a mother – and thus perhaps a little more patient with James. It was just our group (Alyce, Sam, James, and I) on the tour. It is always better when we do not have other people in our group when we have James with us. It just makes things a little less stressful.
The tour was interesting and the wine was good. I liked hearing about their wine making practices as they had perhaps moved a little too far into the modern camp at the peak of the Parker craze, but they have dialed thing back and are making good wine.
Lunch was booked at Les Belles Perdrix – the Michelin starred restaurant at Troplong Mondot winery. It is up on an elevated perch overlooking St. Emilion and vineyards. They have a beautiful outdoor courtyard where most people dine. It was also a nice large open area, so James could go run around every now and then.
The food was very enjoyable. We all liked it a lot – even Sam. It turned out she is adventurous like us and will eat most anything (though maybe not quite as much – but close). Heading into the trip, I wasn’t sure what she’d think and that we may have to be hunting down fast food or pizza for her.
We had the prix fix menu, which was plenty of food. I still can remember the desserts being delicious writing this a year later. As a bonus, they whipped James up some French fries, which he enjoyed while watching the Lion King. This was an excellent meal all around – food, location, and service. The weekday lunch menu was also pretty reasonably priced.
I had an afternoon tasting booked for Alyce and I in Pomerol – another Right Bank area nearby. We dropped James and Alyce off at the house then took the quick drive over to Clinet (not to be confused with another winery L’Eglise Clinet).
While we love James, it was nice to do a tasting without him. And it was good we did not have him with us. Clinet was in the middle of harvesting, so there was action all over the place. Neat for us to see; not good for a two year old. A nice lady about our age was our tour guide.
After touring the operations and seeing some vines, we walked into the tasting rooms and tried a couple wines. They were good and had that distinct powerful right bank merlot taste. We bought a couple for drinking on the trip.
On the way back to the house, we stopped at the grocery to get some essentials – milk, meats, cheese, wine. The plan for dinner was just to do a meat and cheese meal after our big lunch.
It turned out though that we realized we were missing one of the cheeses when I got home. I walked back to the grocery having no idea how this would play out given the language barrier. They recognized me and gave me the cheese. They said it was not wrung up, and charged me for it…Overall, easy enough.
Alyce, Sam, and James hung out at the house for a little bit while I went around and scoped out St. Emilion. We planned to go walk around, so I was trying to get the lay of the land.
I went back and got the crew moving. Alyce was wearing James, and he fell asleep not long after we left. He stayed out for 20-30 minutes then woke up ready to go.
St. Emilion is a pretty, medieval town. It’s very hilly with cobblestone streets. There is also a large tower/castle in the middle of the town. Staying there, it was very pleasant and not too crowded in the evenings. That said, we saw the tail end of the tourists leaving in the afternoon and could see that it gets crowded with tour buses during the day (as I had read).
After doing a pretty comprehensive walking tour, we wanted to head back for some evening snacks. James again fell asleep in Alyce’s wearing thing. This time for good. She put him down when we got back. Alyce, Sam, and I ate some meats and cheese with some wine. We finished off the night with some TV shows/computer.
Day 7 (St. Emilion Day # 3)
Today, just Alyce and I would be doing tastings. The main reason? We were going to the Left Bank, which was a 90 minute drive in each direction. That would have made for an unpleasant day for everyone with James in tow.
Pontet Canet was our first stop scheduled for the day. As mentioned, they are a 5th growth, but make some very good wine. Similar to Haut Bailly, it is an excellent value (if you can ever call a $100 bottle of wine a value) for the outstanding quality. The 150 year old 5th growth classification just saves you a little cash in this circumstance.
They are a biodynamic winery. Without getting into too much detail, that means they treat the whole winery as an ecosystem and use minimal outside chemicals, irrigation etc. Essentially trying to use natural features to help the vines – e.g., cover crops for predators of insects that harm vines, fertilizing soil with “natural” fertilizer produced from animal on site, using horses for plowing, and on…
I’m a fan of all that if a winery can make it work. It sounds kind of hippy-ish, but a lot of it is actually scientific based. And Pontent Canet is making it work.
We did a cool tour looking at the vines and doing a complete tour of the property. After that, we got a healthy pour of the main event – Pontet Canet (2008 vintage). It was delicious. There were a couple other couples with us…one of which was pretty odd. They were being show-offy and pretentious…but really did not know what they were talking about. Oh well, that happens sometimes. No sweat off our back.
I had booked lunch at the Chateau Cordeillan Bages restaurant. It is very highly thought of and has two Michelin stars. The reason I point that out is to highlight how fantastic of a deal it was – definitely one of the best I’ve encountered for this class of restaurant.
The Lunch menu was 60 euros (tax/tip included). So, it was about $135 US for the two of us. Fantastic bargain for a meal at a two star restaurant even without knowing anything else. But here is what that included:
- Bottled water (usually $10-$15 at this type of restaurant)
- A couple amuse bouches
- 3 courses (appetizer, entree, dessert)
- 2 glasses of wine (each)
- Coffee or tea
But who cares about the bargain if it’s no good? Not me.
It was excellent. And for $135 all in. Courses/wine pours were not stingy either. I doubt there are many restaurants in New Orleans that I could get a similar line up and make it out for under $200 – at a fraction of the all over quality (really on the wine).
They also did a good job pacing our meal for our next stop – Pichon Baron. Pichon Baron has one of the more scenic chateau.
It also has some excellent, ageworthy wine. We did a tour with a Taiwanese hostess who was in Bordeaux to learn about wine (Sou Chen). She spoke fantastic English and did a good job with the tour. She told us all about Pichon Baron and its sister property Pichon Lalande (where I had also wanted to do a tour, but it was closed for the day). The two are now under different ownership – and have been for a while. However, they are still intertwined in many ways. And very different wines despite being across the street from each other.
Pichon Baron is typically describes as a powerful, masculine wine. Pichon Lalande (full name – Pichon Longueville Comtesse de LaLande) has the reputation of being a softer, more elegant wine – or more feminine. These reputations are very old. Hence, the original estate owner gave the Pichon Baron side to his sons (“Baron”) and the Pichon LaLande side to his daughter (Comtesse = countess). At least it was an interesting story when Sou Chen our tour guide was telling it.
Anyway, we finished off the tour by trying some of Pichon Baron’s wines. They lived up to there reputation and were delicious wines – but tannic and powerful.
I had considered planning in another stop, and we probably had time to pull it off. But, it was time to get back home and give Sam a break. These days of doing things just the two of us are fantastic. I don’t want to abuse it.
The ride back was uneventful. By this time, I was a pro at swinging the big van in and out of that tiny driveway. Sam reported that they had done fine and watched a couple movies/played outside.
We took a break then walked around St. Emilion one last time. The girls enjoyed walking through a local craft market. I could take it or leave it. At a little shop, James picked up a souvenir sword, which he loved. James is a big fan of swords…
We found a nice playground on our way back and let James go crazy for a little bit. It was next to the grocery, so we grabbed some more meats and cheeses for evening snack time.
We went back to the house and hung out outside while drinking wine and eating some of our favorite foods (cured meats and cheese). We did some packing as the next morning would be a pretty early start, though nothing too extreme. The LSU-Auburn football game was starting as we were going to bed. I decided to go into an LSU bubble and try to watch it later at some point on a replay. Turns out that wouldn’t work, and it would be a pretty momentous game…
Our time in St. Emilion was over. We absolutely liked it and the Bordeaux region. The food was good, the scenery was awesome, and the wine was world class.
Dordgone Region (Daglan/Sarlat la-Caneda area)
The Dordogne region is what you picture when you think French countryside. Beautiful green hills, farms, lots of very old towns. It really is a pretty cool area, and fall is the perfect time to go. The weather is nice and all the British tourists have returned from their summer holiday to the area.
The Dordogne Valley is so named for the Dordogne River that flows through it. The Gironde estuary in Bordeaux actually forks into two rivers, one of which is the Dordogne. So we had already crossed over the Dordogne several times in our travels to this point.
There are plenty of places/towns to see in the area. I would not say there is one main town – though Sarlat-la-Caneda is the most well-known.
Day 8 (Dordogne Day #1)
So when we last left off, I had entered into an LSU bubble. That lasted no time, as when I woke I had an email (in the gmail widget on my homescreen) that started with “burn it all down” – and quite possibly some other profanities. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out things must have went wrong.
Sidebar: my interest in LSU football has waned greatly over the last decade. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still into it and watch all the games. But I’m not hardcore about it like the past. Part of it was that following LSU football has more frustrating than fun for a while, part of it was having new priorities in life and realizing that I should not let the result of a college game ruin my day, and so on.
Anyway, I saw we lost on a last second play and moved on. I was doing much more interesting things with my day. Or at least I had them planned…
We really like the property itself that we stayed in, but the property owners/managers were frustrating. This can be part of the deal with vacation rentals. Sometimes you have owners that are responsive give you all kinds of nice stuff (our apartment in Florence sticks out). Sometimes, there is no toilet paper when you arrive – as was the case here.
But my biggest gripe was about to take place. When we checked in, they asked what time we wanted to check out – I said 9:00 a.m. as we had somewhere to be that morning. I also proactively sent an email the day before our departure confirming this fact, which a tenant shouldn’t have to do.
Our morning tasting was at Doisy Daene in the Sauternes area. It was about a 40 minute drive, so I wanted to head out for 9:00. The troops had done an excellent job getting ready. We were all loaded up and ready to depart a couple minutes before 9:00.
But there was no sign of the owner. 10 minutes passes and still no sign. I call and get no answer. 10 more minutes, still nothing. Now I’m super anxious.
Most places don’t even require a formal check out. I would have left at this point (or earlier), but we had put down a $500 euro cash deposit upon arrival. I wasn’t losing that.
A couple more calls to the owner with no answer. Now I’m calling the winery and profusely apologizing (or as best as I can through the language barrier). I hate that more than anything. This was a Sunday morning that they were taking time out to meet with us. It pained me terribly to be late, but there was nothing we could do. And it only got worse.
After more calls and another 20 minutes, I still had heard nothing from the owner. We were all livid. As 10:00 was approaching, I made the call to just cancel our first tour. Mind you, we were driving 45 minutes out of our way to go to this area, where we may not be back for quite some time, and had to miss it because of a poor rental owner.
Noted on my part: if cash deposit is required at a vacation rental, be extremely clear on my check out requirements going forward.
Finally, they showed up at a little after 10:00 – i.e. over an hour late. I expressed my frustration…and they got it, but what could I really do. They quickly checked the house and gave us the deposit back. I would have unloaded had they tried anything else.
I knew I had to move on, but it was hard. All this planning and it goes out the door because of an aloof/lazy owner and a stupid cash deposit policy. We set off, and I worked on cooling myself down.
As a result, we made it to our second scheduled tasting with some time to spare. They were actually running behind schedule, so we had a lot of time to spare…It was only an additional 10 or 15 minutes, so nothing too bad. We hung out outside for a little bit.
The Sauternes area is where the most famous sweet wines in the world are made. As a result of the location next to forests on one side and a river on the other, the area frequently has a lot of cool, humid fog. This causes fungus to grow on the grapes – usually a very bad thing. But in this circumstance, that fungus is botrytis, aka “noble rot.” The fungus sucks all the water out of the grapes (typically semillion, sauvignon blanc, and muscadelle) leaving a syrupy sweet juice behind. Sauternes taste great young and age forever. Even if you think you don’t like sweet wine, you should give a quality Sauternes a shot with dessert or some blue cheese.
Our tour was at Chateau Guiraud. We had a little bit of rain during our tour, but we were fine with it. Seeing the Sauternes wine making specifics was interesting, and we tasted a couple delicious wines – even some dry white wines. A good stop, but I still wish we had been able to make our first stop in addition.
I made lunch reservations at Le Saprien in Sauternes (the city). It had an outdoor patio, and I thought that would be pleasant and good for James. Good thought…but the patio was closed with the rain.
We sat inside, and it wasn’t a big deal as James was pretty calm for this meal. The meal was good, and we split some wine. We had a couple minutes after eating, so we popped in a nearby wine shop, but they were not pouring anything today.
The drive to our house in Dordogne wasn’t too bad at a little over two hours. It was pretty and slow moving toward the end, but no one minded. I think everyone but the driver caught a little shut-eye. That’s fine with me if it keeps everyone going.
I had looked at several spots to stay in the Dordogne region, but settled where we did because it seemed like a good spot to bring James being in the country with plenty area to just run around. We eventually made it up to the house. It was unlocked and no one was there, so we just walked in.
We unloaded, the let James go run around on the swing sets and playhouses – which he loved. He also was into the ping pong table, but he’s got a couple more years until he can play – and many more till he can even think of beating his old man.
Eventually, David walked up and greeted us. He was friendly. I had dealt mostly with his wife over email – who seemed ok. More on that later…
The house was an old cabin that David had renovated. It was good for us. I did notice one issue after David had left – the internet was not working. That was a bit of a problem.
I do not go on vacation to browse the internet, but I do have to keep up with work. That is how I can pull off these long vacations without getting fired. Internet is a necessity. I only book places with internet or make alternative plans (I actually had a wifi hotspot delivered to out rental in St. Emilion, which worked just fine). This place was listed as having a reliable, high speed internet connection. It was none of the above.
Reading through the manual, I saw that the wife had addressed this. The gist of the wording was essentially “Our internet doesn’t always work. Deal with it. What do you expect? We’re in the country. You should be outside anyway.” That’s nice, but internet is the only reason I can even be there at all. Mind your own business.
There were a couple other abrasive things in the manual. Maybe it was British manners, but it rubbed me (and everyone else) the wrong way.
What even moreso was problematic was that there was an envelope saying “put your 80 euro cleaning fee in here.” Huh? The online listings for the site specifically advertised no cleaning fee. Some places have one; some don’t. It factors into consideration on where to stay. Rather than make a huge stink, I paid it after confirming by email that I was not misunderstanding things. But I was annoyed and thought it was unfair that it was explicitly stated as not having a cleaning fee. The listing still states that as of today. Plus, that is a pretty high fee for a 1000 sq. ft. cabin.
Finally, she said we left us mess and gave us a poor rating about a week after we left. That made absolutely no sense as we busted our butts cleaning that place as we always do (and even accommodating her nazi-esque list of requirements for check out). I’ve never had anything remotely resembling a complaint in the many, many other vacation rentals we have stayed in across the world. Usually, it’s very positive feedback. That annoyed me so much that I sent a kindly worded email asking for some explanation so that we could do better on our future stays and she never responded. At all. Bottom line: the woman at La Prairie (now “luxury Dordogne rentals”) is a…
Well – I’ll just leave it at if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Ask Alyce though if you’re curious. When I told her she had given us a mediocre review because of how “we left the place,” I thought she was going to run from Spain all the way to France to tackle her. I think it still puts her in a rage if I mention it. But I digress…back to the vacation.
As I said, the house itself was nice. The location was central enough in an area that is overall pretty spread out. The internet eventually started working the next day, but it stopped again and was off and on the entire stay.
The grounds were pretty, and we had already eaten out for lunch. We decided to just snack on some meat/cheese/wine on the patio for dinner. It worked out well.
We watched some TV before going to bed. It was about that time that I noticed on my phone (which had internet) that Les Miles was fired. He had been the LSU coach for over a decade and has had both wild success and incredibly frustrating defeats. I’m a fan of his but agreed that it was time to move on (it should have been done at the conclusion of the 2015 season). It was surreal reading what I could of the scenario on the other side of the Atlantic.
Day 9 (Dordogne Day #2)
We woke up, took it easy, and drank some coffee. I read what I could on the LSU coaching change given the spotty internet.
Our plans for the morning were to take the 30 minute drive to Chateau de Fenelon and walk through it. Fenelon is a 13th century fortified castle. It’s been owned by several Nobles over the years – and has surely been defended and conquered several times over its history.
James fell asleep just before we arrived. Alyce was able to transfer him to the carrier and he stayed asleep for the first hour or so. That worked out well for everyone.
The entrance fee was reasonable, and the castle was impressive walking up to it. We all received an informative booklet with our entrance, and it was presented in several languages. We read about and observed all the different fortifications and when they were added.
The interior of the castle looked to be very well preserved and provided realistic insight to the families that lived there. After we had been inside for 20 minutes, James started to wake up. He found the knight stuff interesting and had fun running around on the grass. We all enjoyed Fenelon and thought it was definitely worth the stop.
Another 10 minutes in the opposite direction of heading back to the house was La Gabarre. I had read some good things about the restaurant, and it had a nice outdoor eating area – always a plus for James. Given the nice weather, we’d actually be able to take advantage of it this time.
La Gabarre was excellent. The setting on the Dordogne River was nice, but the food was outstanding. We had a ton of good meals in the French portion of the trip, and I’d put this right there with any of them.
We stopped at the grocery on the way back and picked up some essentials – coffee, wine, meat, cheese. After that, we just hung around the house/grounds. James enjoyed the toy room that was available on the property. He also like directing us on how to play ping pong.
There are seemingly hundreds of neat little towns in the area to go explore in the Dordogne. Tonight, we were going to go walk around Domme and eat some dinner.
The town was pretty typical of all the small old towns in the area. Going later in the day is definitely a plus (at all these towns) as you miss the tour buses. Domme did have a really cool look out area over the side of the cliff the town is on. The views were fantastic. Pictures don’t really do it justice.
I had made reservations at Cabanoix in Domme for dinner. It was pretty crowded; we would have had no shot getting in without reservations. The food was good…nothing too memorable though (especially compared to lunch at La Gabarre). We were also pretty jammed in and James was not having his best night.
We made the dark drive back to the house and put James to sleep. We hung out for a little bit and I tried to catch up on some work.
Day 10 (Dordogne Day #3)
We were up and moving pretty early to go to the Cenac market. This was more of a locals’ market than a full on tourist spectacle. I thought that would be interesting. Alyce never turns down a good market. So, we made the 10 minute drive over to Cenac (where we had went to the grocery store the previous day).
The market had a bunch of booths with locally made/grown sausages, cheese, crafts, fruits, and on. It was fun to walk around, and we picked up some goodies. Before we left though, we all had some coffee and crepes made right out there. I had honey; Alyce and Sam had Nutella. They were all delicious.
From the market, we made our way to the hillside town of Beynac and started the trek up. It was quite the uphill hike for our crew – especially with baby in tow. It was worth it though when we made it to the top. We didn’t go in Beynac Chateau, as it wasn’t cheap and I didn’t think our crew would make it for long in there. It was still worth it just looking around from the outside.
We walked back down and rode back to the house. James conked out immediately and took a nap. Alyce just wanted to relax at the house at this point, so Sam and I took a ride over to a nearby ancient human cave with paintings.
The cave was Grottes de Cougnac. A tour was included with entrance to the cave…but it was mostly in French. The guide also spoke some English and filled us in after his initial spiels, which was much appreciated. There were actually two caves as part of the tour – one with more geological features and one with the paintings.
The caves were cool, and I’m glad we saw it. There are a bunch cave tour options in the area. Given more time I’d probably do another one or two, but I wouldn’t go crazy with it unless you’re just a cave nut.
Sam and I went back to the house and picked up James and Alyce to head to La Roque-Gageac. This is another charming hill-side town on the river. They do boat ride tours of the area. We thought James would like that, but he was not interested – at all.
With a little time to kill before dinner, we walked up into the town a bit then made our way back down to La Belle Etoile for dinner. We even found a playground for James (and others) to play in. I thought La Belle Etoile had an outside eating area, but that is apparently reserved for hotel guests. It was slightly more formal than I was expecting inside, but that was just in appearance only. The staff was very welcoming and friendly.
We placed our orders and asked about fries for James. They did not have any – oh well. However, about 15-20 minutes later, they brought out a plate of fries the chef whipped up especially for James. This was much appreciated.
Outside of that, the food was very good. This was yet another delicious meal. James was well behaved too, which is always a plus.
We again survived the dark drive back to the house and chilled with some wine and TV before calling it a night.
Day 11 (Dordogne Day #4)
Last full day in the region…and Alyce’s birthday! Sarlat had its big market today, so we tried to get an early start to beat the crowds. We somewhat succeeded – getting on the road for about 9:30.
The market was much bigger than the Cenac market and was pleasant at first. However, after we were there for an hour or two, it had gotten much more crowded. It was a little much for me at that point. The market was definitely cool and worth getting to early in the day, but it gets crowded. I don’t want to know what it’s like in the peak of holiday season.
We munched on some tapenade and sweet treats that we bought at the market, and we also picked up some paella from a street vendor to bring back and eat at the house.
But before heading back, we ran by a foie gras farm to see the geese and buy some foie. James liked the geese, and they all seemed pretty happy. The whole force feeding thing is a little over blown, as the geese like it and run to get fed. They also live an awesome life in tons of space outside. I’d much rather be a foie gras goose than an industrialized American farm animal.
Back at the house, we had a nice al fresco lunch and split a bottle of rose.
Alyce and I planned to head back out and go do the river tour while Sam watched James. We had just missed a departing tour, so we had to drink some rose wine outside while we waited. Darn…
The boat tour was nice in that you get to see a lot of the area and get a little background on it from the audio tour (pre-recorded headphones for us English speakers). I would have rather done a canoe tour, but that wasn’t an option for James (when I thought he’d want to go).
We walked through Daglan on our way back after the boat tour. It is a small town and was pretty empty at this point in time. Alyce had read about a shop she wanted to see, but we couldn’t find it.
Sam and James had done fine at the house. She was cool with us leaving again to go grab a dinner birthday bite for Alyce.
Le Petit Pairs was highly praised and right close by in Daglan, so that is where I had made dinner reservations. We had yet another very good meal – I’d put it in the same category as La Belle Etoile from the night before.
Alyce’s mom sense had kicked in during the meal and she was a little nervous about James. I told her not to worry, but apparently he was giving Sam some hell. Sorry Sam!
But they survived, and we made it back and did some packing. We had to be out by 10:00 a.m. the next day and had a pretty good day of driving ahead of us.
It was at this point at the trip that we made some late changes. Originally, we were going to head to Burgundy then finish up in Paris. We changed things up, and I honestly think it worked for the best.
Dordogne to Barcelona was just too much driving to do in one day at nearly 6 hours. Good news was that there were some nice coastal towns to stay in along the way. Collioure kept popping up. I was a little hesitant because I read it can be pretty touristy. That may be true in July/August, but it was quite nice in early October.
Collioure is another small, historic French town…with the added benefit of a nice beach. It has some history to it but is now mostly known for tourism and wine production in the area.
It was a natural place for us to stop between Dordogne and Barcelona and did not require any backtracking. We did not stay in Collioure proper – but a 10 minute walk away. This worked out well, and we had our own little beach in the area. We ended up really liking the area and could have easily spent more time there.
Day 12 (Collioure Day #1)
We had a pretty smooth morning getting up and out before 10:00. This included a thorough cleaning of the house…
We had a solid 4 hours of driving on the day. I had planned a wine tasting/lunch to split it up. I also had some other spots picked out that we could stop at (Carcassonne being the main one), but we ended up just powering through.
A little more than an hour outside of Dordogne, we stopped at Chateau de Mercues – a winery/chateau/hotel in the Cahors wine region. It was a very pretty chateau with beautiful grounds. We took a quick tour then did a tasting of a wide variety of wines. As usual, we enjoyed most of them.
After letting James run around for a little bit, we made our way to a nearby restaurant – La Garenne. James was in an active mood on this day. The three of us us adults spent most of the lunch rotating outside with James. When he was inside, the waitress did not seem too thrilled with him. She told us to make sure he kept his feet off the chair after one of them touched it for a moment…and it’s not like these were super nice chairs. However, the food was good, and that is what counts.
We weren’t back on the road long before it seemed like everyone was taking a nap – except yours truly…the all-time driver. Again, I’m all for naps if it keeps everyone happy on these transports.
I do recall seeing a gas station seemingly every couple miles right on the interstate for the majority of the ride. Once we got to the point where the van said we had ~100 kilometers to go on gas, I decided to fill up at the next station.
The one problem with that plan was all the gas stations seemed to suddenly disappear. I wasn’t nervous at first, but the miles just kept counting down. I don’t know if I made it to single digits (probably), but I was pretty anxious. Finally, a gas station showed up. We all got out the car and took a little break while filling up. The last hour of the ride was smooth sailing from there.
We checked in at our cosy 2 bedroom apartment. It was tight but well-appointed and located. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend the whole vacation in that small of a space, but it was fine for 2 days. The owner was very friendly and gave us some pointers. Alyce and I walked to the grocery down the street after we unpacked and got the usual.
Before it got dark, we went over to the small beach (next to the apartment…not the main Collioure beaches). It was very different than the white sand beaches were used to. We all enjoyed it and had a really nice time skipping rocks, finding stones, playing in the water, etc.
We just did an easy meat/cheese/wine dinner as we had a decent stockpile. We watched a couple episodes of Veep and called it a night.
Day 13 (Collioure Day #2)
Today was going to be a pretty laid back day. The only thing on the agenda was an afternoon lunch, walking around Collioure, and the beach.
The walk to Collioure was 10-15 minutes – a little bit of a hike, but it saved us from having to find a parking spot. We stopped at a nice beach and playground area. Alyce and James decided to just hang out there; Sam and I kept walking to see more of the town.
Eventually, it was time to make our way over to La Balette for lunch. The restaurant had an awesome setting right on the water overlooking Collioure. The weather cooperated today, and it was perfect for sitting outside on the patio.
Our meal was very good top to bottom. The food was excellent, and the lunch menu was reasonably priced. James was pretty calm, which is always welcome.
After a lovely lunch, we strolled back to our apartment. We let lunch settle then geared up for a longer day at the small beach nearby.
It was again a lot of fun just hanging out at the beach. We all relaxed. Sam and James braved the cold water and loved every minute of it. Alyce and I mostly sat in the chairs and observed. There was a pretty good crowd when we got out there, but we were some of the last ones left at the end of the day.
We had to bribe James to go back to the apartment with the prospect of a hot shower (which he had gotten quite accustomed to after spending time at the beach). We ate on our stockpile of food for a simple dinner after the big lunch.
I eventually ventured out on my own to walk around the town of Port Vendres – a more fishing/commercial oriented town in the opposite direction of Collioure. I took some pictures and bought a can of anchovies (the area is famous for anchovies), then made my way back to the apartment and called it a night after watching a couple Veeps.
Planning for Barcelona was a bit of a rush due to the late changes of itinerary/schedule. Fortunately, there are a ton of great options in the city, so you can’t really go wrong. Also, I had the benefit of getting some pointers from my cousins who had previously spent a month in Barcelona with their small children.
Barcelona is part of the Catalan region of Spain…something most people are probably aware of these days given that Catalonia is in the process of trying to break away from Spain. One thing that I’ve found to be true all over Europe is that areas within countries can be very different culturally, historically, linguistically, etc. That seemed to be especially true in Spain.
Barcelona is a big, interesting city with a little over 5 million people living in the metro area. It’s a gritty, funky city…and I don’t mean that in a bad way. We really enjoyed our time there. The public transportation worked well enough for us.
It was also at this point of the trip that we were picking up another traveler – Nonna (Alyce’s mom). She was flying over by herself and was set to arrive around the same time we were. She was excited to head back to Europe, and I know James always loves to see his Nonna.
Day 14 (Barcelona Day #1)
We got up on time and cleaned/finished packing…There was no elevator at this apartment, and we were on the third floor. That means call in the manual labor to lug the heavy stuff up and down the stairs – aka: me.
I had worked up quite the sweat, but we were ready to go just when I wanted to be. At least that seemed to be the case. We had wine stored in a 6 bottle carrier that we got from one of the wineries. It just makes it easier to transport.
I guess this carrier had reached its limit. The cardboard handle literally just broke off when I was holding it. The box fell and hit the ground with a thud. It didn’t sound good. Bad news – a bottle we had bought from Chateau Guiraud and were planning on bringing home broke. Good news – that was it and it could have been much worse.
Even though we only lost one bottle, it still made a huge mess as we were literally going to the car to leave. Much of the broken glass stayed in the box, but some got out. And there was sweet white wine all over the floor. The apartment also did not have the world’s best cleaning options…or anything close to it. We cleaned as best we could and sopped up the wine with the dirty towels then ran them in the wash.
Our morning had gotten kind of hectic, but we made it out. I had planned to leave early to take a scenic route along the coast to our first stop. That went out the window with the spill.
I had looked at many options for our drive being that it wasn’t that far of a drive and we actually had to occupy some time before our check in time at the Barcelona apartment. The Spanish coastal town of Cadaques looked really interesting, but it was too much of a detour with James. There were also several other coastal town to stop at, wineries to tour, restaurants to try, etc.
Rather than overdoing it, I found Terra Remota that offered a tour and tasting along with the option to do a picnic at the winery. That sounded best for our scenario, so that is what we did. It worked out wonderfully.
Terra Remota is newer, advanced, and interesting facility. We had a nice young guy give us a tour. It was enjoyable, and James did as well as could be expected.
After the tour, we tried a lot of wines and really enjoyed most of them. As part of the picnic, you could choose one of the wines to take to lunch. We also bought a couple bottles to drink over the remainder of the trip.
The picnic was fantastic and a great bargain. For 40 euros, we got a bottle of wine and enough food for all of us. It was also in a really cool setting right in the middle of vineyards. I have to imagine something comparable in Napa would cost at least twice as much and probably more.
We spent our time relaxing at the picnic, as we weren’t in a huge rush to get to Barcelona and only had an hour of driving left. But…eventually it was time to gather ourselves and get back in the Viano one last time.
The rest of the drive was issue free. We met a lady at the apartment that checked us in and gave us the lay of the land. The apartment was nice and located in the L’Eixample neighborhood. That is an upscale-ish residential area with plenty of good eating options. It was also close enough to the tourist areas to walk, but you also weren’t right in the middle of them. The location and apartment worked out well for us.
We had parked in a parking lot down the street…and that was about as close as we were going to get to lug all of our stuff up. Sam and I took a couple trips while Alyce watched James. At least both the garage and apartment had an elevator. We finally got everything cleared out of the van, and it was time to run it over to the rental place 5-10 minutes away. I could walk back. Simple enough right?
Wrong. Things were about to get interesting.
The next several hours was easily the most stressful stretch for me in all of our travels. And it is not even close.
Remember, I’m driving around in Barcelona, where I had never been. Streets are pretty wild, there are scooters all over the place, and I have no idea where I’m going.
Also I’m in a gigantic passenger van.
Honestly, driving in Barcelona was not that bad just on its own. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I could have handled just that.
I had to fill up the car with gas prior to dropping it off. I used google maps to locate a gas station. It didn’t really do a good job. I love google maps and have used it everywhere. If I have one complaint about it , it’s that it doesn’t do a good job of locating gas stations. I’ve found that to be the case both in the United States and abroad.
After 25-30 minutes of driving the van around, I finally found one. I filled up, was slightly annoyed with how long this had taken, then was ready to drive the remaining 5 minutes to the rental place.
When I was just about to the place, traffic started to get very bad.
Then there was a barricade where I was supposed to turn. Google recalculated.
Then another barricade…and another…and another.
The entire area was closed off for a renaissance festival of some sort – I kid you not. This meant that there were cars parked all over the place on these narrow streets. Also, google had no idea this was going on. Everywhere it tried to send me ended in a dead end.
I circled around for 30 minutes then somehow ended up on a narrow street with cars parked on either side.
It was tight. I truly thought that I was not going to be able to make it through. I was figuring I’d just have to gun it through and deal with the damages to the car. By the grace of God, I made it through unscathed. I think I had a ¼ of an inch on either side. The following picture gives you an idea – but not the full picture. I snapped it while the van ahead of me (that was smaller than mine) barely made it.
Finally, I found a place to park and tried looking all over google maps. I couldn’t really figure it out not knowing where this stupid fair was. I also tried calling the rental place, but it directed me to a national line that was not helpful at all. I also tried looking for other branches to drop the car off at, but none were open being that it was about 5:00 on Saturday afternoon.
I contemplated several options – including just going back and parking at the apartment and returning the car the next day. That would cost a ton, so I wanted to avoid it.
I also started to worry that I could be late for our 7:30 dinner reservations at Pakta. This wasn’t even in the realm of possibilities I was considering when I left nearly 2 hours ago for what I thought was a 10 minute drive.
I went back at it and circled around another time or two trying to find any new route that would work. No luck.
Finally, I got on the interstate and just tried to navigate myself there through the most roundabout route you could imagine.
And it worked! I was so relieved. I don’t really get anxious, but I was super stressed at this point.
I asked the rental worker about the fair, and he just kind of shrugged it off and said that there is only one very specific way to get to the dropoff. Wish I would have known that…
It was about 6:15 by the time I got out of there. I had to be in a cab in no less than one hour. I also needed to shower and pass by an ATM on the way back. The walk was about 30 minutes, but I knew could pull it off. Didn’t have much time to mess around though…
Hauling it on the way back, I passed by a couple ATMs. Once I had gotten a little bit closer, I popped into one for some cash. I was going to do the max 500 euros allowed, which should easily last us the rest of the trip.
Easy enough right? Nope.
I went through the transaction, put in my pin, did everything, etc. It told me to take my cash.
One problem: no cash came out.
I waited for a second and realized that none was going to come out. I tried doing a separate transaction to test the machine, and it now said it was not functioning. I got on my bank website, and it showed the 500 euro transaction as having been completed.
After the stress of the rental return, I was now getting screwed out of 500 euros. The bank that the ATM was at was closed, so that was no help. I didn’t want to leave the machine, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I called my bank.
After a hold and 30 minute phone call, the transaction was under investigation. That was the best I could do right then. I also had no time to spare now, and I still had to get some cash. I found another ATM that worked fine. Only I got a much smaller amount this time.
Sidebar/good news: I eventually got a credit for the amount of the transaction. So all is well that ends well. But I was not happy when I thought I lost ~$550 USD on nothing.
I damn near jogged the rest of the way back to the apartment. Alyce told me I looked stressed/terrible. She was right. Nonna was also there now, but I just had a second to tell her hi and change my clothes. We had dinner at a nice restaurant, and I didn’t even really have time to get cleaned up.
We caught a cab to our dinner at Pakta. Pakta is Japanese and Peruvian fusion restaurant – aka Nikkei cuisine. Apparently, there is a huge influence on Peruvian food from the Japanese. What that has to do with Barcelona? I don’t know that either. Regardless, it seemed mostly Japanese to me.
And it was fantastic. We started off with some (much needed in my case) drinks. I think I had the signature pisco sour. After that, we split a bottle of wine over the 20 or so courses/bites. All the courses were beautifully presented and (more importantly) were delicious.
Pakta was easily the best Japanese food I’ve had outside of Japan. Overall, it was an excellent meal.
We caught a cab back to the apartment, and James had went to sleep for his Nonna. He would have some struggles here in the sleep department that pushed his mom’s patience. But we survived.
The day was long, and I was ready to get started with a new one.
Day 15 (Barcelona Day #2)
Today, we mostly had some walking around the city and seeing the sites planned. Our newly expanded crew was up and at ‘em at a decent time.
We walked around and saw several of the famous Gaudi buildings. We didn’t go into any because they were crowded, and it just doesn’t make sense with James. But they were still very interesting to see from the outside.
We detoured to a park because James was getting a little antsy. He played in the “sand” with some toys he found. Sam and I went and scoped some things out while Alyce, Nonna, and James hung out at the park.
When Sam and I got back, we found the crew in a pastry shop getting some snacks. They ate their treats, then we made our way back out and were heading towards the Sagrada Familia.
The Sagrada Familia is a Gaudi designed Catholic church. They started building it in 1882. It is still not finished. It is not a cathedral.
Little catholic history/doctrine detour here…This was all news to me. All cathedrals are the seat/church of a bishop. Thus you can only have one Cathedral per diocese/city. Barcelona already had the Cathedral of Barcelona. Thus the Sagrada Familia is not/will not be a cathedral despite the fact that it is a massive and impressive church.
The design is interesting, and I have heard the interior is very impressive. Going in wasn’t an option with James and the lines. Instead, we found a park nearby and let James run around there.
Once the crew was rested, I rounded everyone up, and we walked back to the apartment. Everyone was ready for a little break at that point. I decided to go walk around and scope things out for the evening. I had about 2-3 hours.
I covered some ground and saw the Plaza de Catalunya, the Cathedral of Barcelona, the gothic quarter…and more.
By the time I made it back, everyone was ready to head back out. We just made the walk down to the Plaza de Catalunya and let James check out the fountains and all the action there. He enjoyed it.
We walked back to the apartment down Rambla de Catalunya and found a nice outdoor restaurant for Sam and Nonna to get some food. Alyce and I had reservations at Etapes.
Etapes was a pretty close walk from the apartment. It was a somewhat quiet restaurant with Spanish food. We had another excellent meal there and enjoyed everything. We even found a bottle of Terra Remota wine to drink on the list.
After another good meal, we walked back. I caught up on work, and we watched a Veep or two then called it a night.
Day 16 (Barcelona Day #3)
We had a slower start to this morning. Not a big deal as there wasn’t anything particular to rush out for. We had coffee and I suggested everyone eat breakfast if they were hungry…
Again, the agenda was to walk around and see the sites – ultimately ending up by the beach.
Our first stop was the Gothic Quarter. We rambled around there and eventually made our way to the Cathedral of Barcelona. This was an impressive cathedral and certainly worth the stop. There was an interior courtyard with some ducks too, which James enjoyed.
Some of the group bought souvenirs from the church gift shop. It took forever to check out – like 30-45 minutes. I think they could use some extra staff. This wasn’t a big deal, but it set our timing back. That meant we’d potentially be stopping for a snack later for anyone who would be hungry.
From there, we took the quick walk to Mercado de La Boqueria – a large market with a bunch of stalls. It was a cool place, but it was super crowded and pretty much a tourist haven. I got some ham bites, but I don’t know that anyone else got much.
We surfaced from the market crowds only to get stuck in equally as bad – if not worse – crowding on La Rambla. The street was very crowded and had tons of junk aimed at tourist. I’m glad we at least saw it as it’s one of the better known attractions in Barcelona, but I was not impressed.
At this point, we were behind where I’d thought we be due to delays and a late start. My plan was to possibly get something to eat at the market. Or if not, I had mapped out several placed to stop at the beach and along the way to the beach. So we set out on our way back through the Gothic Quarter.
I said to let me know if we needed a break along the way, as we passed the several spots I had on my radar. Then just as we walked past the point of no return, Alyce said we needed to stop anywhere; the crew was getting mutinous. I didn’t really have anything in the area we were – I knew of stops ahead and behind us. Alyce made the call to stop in some random café we passed.
Let’s just say, it wasn’t even memorable enough to make a note of the name. At least the wine was decent….
After an uninspiring stop, everyone had regained the energy for the final 15 minute trek to the beach area. I think the sand and water helped ease any tensions. James of course loved it and got himself soaking wet. We hung out there for a couple hours, then decide to catch a cab back.
One problem, we had one too many people for the cab ride. I volunteered to stay behind and walk; Sam said she’d stay with me and keep me company on the walk.
Before we started on the walk back, Sam and I headed over to one of the beach bars we had our eye on and had a couple drinks. The wine was incredible reasonably priced for a beach bar – at something like $2-$3 for a glass of rose.
After a couple drinks and scoping out the beach, we started back and walked through Ciutadella Park. The park was a nice green space, but nothing overly impressive – especially compared to Retiro Park in Madrid.
I didn’t have any firm plans for dinner this night. Nonna volunteered to watch James, so Sam, Alyce, and I were able to set out by ourselves. We walked to Mercat del Ninot, but it was pretty much dead at this time. My next option was La Flauta, so we set off in that direction.
On the way, we saw a line formed at a Tapas bar made up of seemingly all local people waiting to get in. That looked like a good sign to us, so we got in line and were shortly sitting at the bar. We shared a bunch of tapas bites and some wine. Again, these places are very reasonably priced for what you get.
We eventually got to La Flauta. They do not take reservations, so we could get in, but we did have to wait in line for about 25-30 minutes. We had some delicious plates and drank a carafe of sangria. It was actually very nice and refreshing – and not overly sweet.
The night was still not over after La Flauta, as Sam and I were able to convince Alyce to go have a drink at one of the roof top hotel bars. I do not remember the specific one we ended up at…many were closed being a Monday night. But it was nice, and we all enjoyed a drink. Finally we made our way back home…
James woke up shortly after we got back (just before midnight). He was unhappy and not easily settled. Alyce and I (mostly Alyce) worked with him for a while to get him back down, but he was not very receptive. I think there were frustrations all around at that point and James may have not been the only one to shed a tear. But, we survived – barely…
Day 17 (Barcelona Day #4)
After a rough night…the roughest of the trip, we slept in and got off to a slow start. We walked back to the Mercat del Ninot, and this time it was much more active than the previous night.
Mercat del Ninot is more of a true locals market with places to buy meats/cheese/various provisions. We also got some coffee and pastries. I made sure to make the point to everyone that you need to eat if you want to eat.
From the market, we walked to a playground and let James play. There was also a pretty cool sweet and pastry shop right there that we all checked out (La Pastisseria Barcelona). Alyce and I had late lunch reservations, so we went straight back to the apartment from there.
Disfrutar is a highly regarded restaurant known for its inventiveness/playfulness with food. The chefs came from El Bulli – almost universally regarded as the best restaurant in the world prior to its closure. Disfrutar also had many great reviews, so I figured we’d check it out.
Disfrutar was within walking distance of our apartment, so we strolled over. When you arrive, they give you a tour of the restaurant. We then sat at our table for two. It became quickly apparent that the restaurant was going to push boundaries with creativity.
This type of “creative” meal is not for everyone. We’ll give it a shot, but the food has to be good above all else. We both had to order the same menu and went with the classic selections. The first course or two were pretty out there. While they were enjoyable, it was not quite up to the “taste” level we expect from nice restaurants like this. I was concerned that the meal would be a little too cute and short on substance.
Disfrutar shortly recovered and got back on track. The meal stayed playful, and we had some truly delicious courses. We finished with some coffee after splitting a bottle of wine, and followed that with a leisurely stroll back to the apartment.
Things had gone smoothly at the apartment, and everyone was ready to head out for the afternoon. We were planning to catch the subway to Park Guell, which is a Gaudi designed park.
I just followed the google maps directions, which left us with a pretty steep uphill walk to start things off. We eventually made it and found a park to recuperate in. Lugging James’s stroller up wasn’t easy…
From there, we continued walking around. The park was nice and had some great views of the city. We did not actually make it into the fenced off area of the park as the tickets were all sold out. Still, we had a lot of fun walking around and enjoyed the afternoon.
We walked back to the subway – downhill this time and on a slightly different route. Getting home was easy. We quickly regrouped and then decided to head to La Flauta again with the whole crew. Everyone enjoyed their food again.
On the way back, we passed an ice cream shop and stopped in. We had one minor incident there…James wanted red ice cream. We knew he really didn’t; he just likes the color red. Alyce got the strawberry anyway to split with James. He didn’t like it, and Alyce was stuck with an ice cream she didn’t want. Sam came to the rescue with another flavor.
We made it back to the apartment, packed, and called it a successful wrap on Barcelona.
Madrid is the capital of Spain and was the last stop of our trip – both in a temporal sense and in a sense of actually being on the itinerary. I almost didn’t add it in to the itinerary because it was a little out of the way, and the alternative was just slowing down and flying out of Barcelona.
You’ll read mixed things on Madrid – especially in comparison to Barcelona. Some say it is not as interesting or gritty as Barcelona. Some will say it is a fine city to live in, but not the most interesting to visit as a tourist. And on, and on…
Had we skipped Madrid, it would have been absolutely the wrong choice as we very much enjoyed it.
It is true that it lacked some of the grit that Barcelona did…but put it another way and you can say it was a cleaner, more modern and well-kept city. The architecture, while not as unique as Barcelona was still very interesting. It reminded me of Paris in some ways with the many classic looking low-rise buildings. I thought the food was right there with Barcelona – at least at the places we ate in each city.
And then there was the park. In all the places we’ve been and all the parks we’ve walked through, Retiro park was hands down our favorite. Maybe that was because we had a two year old with us. Maybe that was because the timing and weather were nearly perfect.
I don’t know. I don’t care. I could spend every evening out there with the golden hour light, 70 degree room temperature air, zero humidity, and pleasant crowds.
We also were able to meet up with one of my best friends from growing up that I do not see near as much anymore as I would like. Alyce was friends with him too given that we all went to the same elementary school.
Throw in a great apartment in a fantastic location that was literally across the street from a local market with everything you could want…It’s easy to see how we really enjoyed Madrid.
Some fun facts on Madrid…It is the 3rd largest metro population (~6.5 million) in the European Union behind only London and Paris. Madrid is also dead center of Spain and not on any major waters/shipping routes. There is a river nearby, but it is not any major economic shipping route – or anything close to it from what I can find.
This is more interesting than it sounds at first glance. Think of the major cities in the world/places you have been and most will be on or near the coast, close to the coast with a major shipping waterway or on some other major waterbody. At least that is interesting to me…Anyway, back to the daily recap.
Day 18 (Madrid Day #1)
We were taking high speed rail to Madrid. It was quicker, easier, and ultimately cheaper than transporting our crew in a rented van. I had pre-booked our tickets at a table for 4 in the business class cabin. This was actually one of the cheapest options given that we had 4 people (plus a lap child). It also was perfect for our ride over.
We arrived at the station and boarded mostly without issue. James thought the train was pretty cool and did well overall. The rest of us played the card game fan-tan and enjoyed our complimentary beverages for the 2.5 hour-ish ride. Much better than the 6 hour drive it would have been.
Catching a taxi at the train station was pretty easy. We had to take two taxis, but it was a quick 10 minute or so ride to our apartment in the Salamanca neighborhood.
Salamanca actually reminded me of L’Eixample in Barcelona. It was an upscale, more residential neighborhood with plenty of dining options. It also similarly balanced being outside of the tourist hot spots with being close enough to walk.
Our apartment was great. It was 4 bedrooms, so we had plenty of space. It also had some doors that opened up to small balconies overlooking the street. The guy that met us there was one of the owners and was very nice. He gave us some pointers and the left us to ourselves but was sure to let us know to not hesitate to contact him with any issues.
Another great feature of the apartment was that it was literally across the street from Mercado de la Paz. They had everything you needed there – from everyday goods to the essentials…meat/cheese/wine. They even had a spot that was frying up French fries. Best of all the market was not crowded or touristy at all. We heavily took advantage of it during our stay.
Speaking of which, one of the first things we did after Jose (the owner) left was go walk and check out the market. Of course we got some meats and cheeses to snack on. With nothing really planned and not a ton of time left in the day, we just decided to walk down to the park – good decision.
Retiro Park is massive. There are a ton of playgrounds all throughout it – and nice ones at that. There is also a pretty lake right in the middle with fish and sailboats, both of which James enjoyed. On the weekends, I did see some touristy street performer types, and it did get somewhat crowded. But it was nothing too bad and easily avoided if you wanted to do so.
Everyone had a nice time at the park. We knew we could head back at anytime and enjoy ourselves. Alyce and I had dinner reservations at Bacira, so we had to get moving eventually.
Bacira was on the edge of walking distance, we decided to have a leisurely stroll there given the pleasant weather and catch a cab back. We ate a series of small plates and they were all truly enjoyable. We also split a bottle of wine. As was common for many restaurants in Spain, the prices were very reasonable. We were stuffed on delicious food and had a good bottle of wine…Our bill (tax and tip included) was $70 something US. We can barely get out of a counter service hamburger joint with one drink for $70 back home. We’d eat there all the time if this place was local.
Catching a cab back was easy and inexpensive. Things had gone well at the apartment while we were gone. I caught up on some work and called it a night.
Day 19 (Madrid Day #2)
A new day in a new city…That means new places to walk and explore. I made sure the breakfast eaters in our crew had a hearty start before we headed out.
We walked through Salamanca and eventually made it to the Prado and Thyssen museums. As you may notice is becoming the common theme, we did not actually go in because it just doesn’t make sense with James.
From there, we walked to Puerta del Sol. The walk was nice…Puerto del Sol on the other hand is a super-touristy public square – complete with people dressed up in poor excuses for Mickey Mouse costumes, Pikachu, etc. We weren’t impressed. But, it is good that we passed by and found that out for ourselves. It was pretty much on the way and gave our group a chance to take a break.
Nearby was Plaza Mayor. We took the quick walk over there and found an outside table to sit at and drink some wine. Even James was trying to grab and swirl a glass (which we had poured some juice in for him).
I had made lunch reservations for the crew at Restaurante el Senador. This is pretty close to the Madrid Palace, so I figured we could walk by there and check it out prior to lunch.
The Palace was impressive. We didn’t go in (I’m not even sure if you could have), but we just enjoyed the gardens on the pretty day.
El Senador is a traditional meat restaurant. I had read a lot of good things about and made reservations. At first, it was empty when we got there. This made me a little nervous, but I think we were just early as the crowds eventually arrived.
Lunch was a delicious meat feast, and we were all stuffed by the time we were done. The waiters were being very friendly with James, but he was being kind of shy. Overall though, he did well and we really enjoyed the meal.
Being stuffed, we needed a break from walking. A Madrid subway stop was nearby, so we decided to give that a shot. We made it back without issue, but we did have a10 minute or so walk from the stop back to our apartment.
As mentioned, I had been communicating with one of my good friends who was living in Spain. He lived in Granada at the time, but caught a bus up to spend a couple days in Madrid. Knowing we’d walk to the park that afternoon, I suggested he come meet us over there.
After recuperating from the meat feast, we walked over to the park and eventually met up with Jeff. James was being a wild man and enjoying himself on the playgrounds again. Alyce and I had a great time catching up with Jeff. We hung and talked until we had to head back to get ready for our dinner reservations. Before leaving, we set some plans to meet up with Jeff the following day.
Ramon Freixa was our fine dining stop for Madrid. It was a short walk from our apartment and does more traditional fine dining. Don’t take that the wrong way though. The food is still very interesting – just not as out there as Disfrutar or as playful as Akelarre. The menu consisted of things that would fit right in on a French Laundry or Le Bernardin menu. But if you’re going to do more traditional fine dining, you better nail it.
They nailed it. The restaurant was nice and well decorated, but without the dramatic scenery of a place like Akelarre. We were seated right away at our table for two and had a starter glass of cava. I had noticed a bottle of Schrader wine displayed in the window as we walked in, which I fond kind of interesting. Schrader is a small production Napa Cab that has gotten some really high scores – and thus has gotten to be pretty expensive. It is a very ripe, Robert Parker styled Cab, and I have minimal interest in it – especially at the price point. I guess for some people it is a bit of a status symbol…though a step down from the Chinese aristocrats mixing Coke with their Haut-Brion and Chateau Margaux. Anyway…this part of the story picks back up shortly.
Our waitress helped us pick out a bottle medium bodied red wine that went well with the whole meal. I think she described it as like a good Pinot Noir/Burgundy, but it wasn’t – so the value proposition was far superior. We liked it, and it went well with the meal…so a good suggestion.
The menu was listed at something like 20 courses. We weren’t starving after lunch, so we were a little nervous – especially after five or so courses when we were starting to get full (a rarity for us). Turns out there were 3 or so “courses” – really elements – in each course. This is the only way it could be or no one would finish.
Back to the Schrader wine…There was an interesting American guy and girl at the table next to us. He was probably about 60; she was 10-15 years younger. I could have picked them out as the Schrader couple from a mile away. I don’t know if he brought the wine or bought it from the menu, but he was proud about it. He made sure the whole dining room knew that he had called at lunch to make sure it was decanted. He also may have proclaimed that it was the best wine in the world. That’s bold…especially in Europe.
I don’t mean to pick on Schrader. I’m sure it is a fine wine. I buy from its winemaker’s personal project (Rivers-Marie…though the Rivers-Marie style is definitely toned down compared to Schrader). But this guy was obnoxious. It’s tough to describe a year later, but it sticks out in my mind.
Back to the food – it was excellent. All around. Classics are classics for a reason. Sometimes I don’t need to be tricked with what I’m eating or have my food do a dance for me prior to eating it. Ramon Freixa was excellent ingredients, perfectly prepared. We really enjoyed it.
After all the savory and sweet courses, we were offered to go sit out in the garden for coffee. We took them up on it given that there were a couple “interesting” tables dining in the restaurant. Plus, it was a nice touch either way. After coffee we paid our bill and started our walk back.
Alyce and I discussed if this was our favorite meal of the trip. We couldn’t really answer the question given how many outstanding meals we had on this trip, but it was up there. This was really a fantastic dining trip.
Day 20 (Madrid Day #3)
We had a nice leisurely morning. Eventually, we set out for Plaza Santa Ana, where Jeff would be meeting up with us.
Plaza Santa Ana had two playgrounds and several places to sit for a bite to eat and/or a drink. We all hung out for a little while and took turns playing with James on the playground.
From there, we cut over to Retiro Park and walked through some new (to us) areas of the massive park. James played some more, and we did some more catching up with Jeff. It was another enjoyable afternoon. Eventually, we walked back to the apartment but made some plans to catch up again with Jeff later.
Back at the apartment, most of the crew decided to take a nap or lounge around. I wanted to go walk back through Retiro Park. That was the right call.
It was perfect out there. I’m not an exaggerator, but the scene still sticks out fresh in my mind. The whole park seemed to be bathed in a beautiful early evening light. The weather was just such that you could be wearing a jacket or in shorts/short sleeves and be perfectly comfortable. The crowd struck the balance between busy enough to be interesting, but not crowded. I walked from one end of the park to the other and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Once at the other end of the park, I ran into the Reina Sofia. Entrance was free at this time, so I figured why not. I ran past Picasso’s Guernica – which is massive and super famous in the art world. It was cool (and Sam was jealous), but I had to run out and catch a cab to meet up with everyone for a quick dinner.
The cab took me straight to La Maruca, which was a block or two from the apartment. We did not have reservations, but we got there “early” – at least on Madrid dining time – so we were able to get a table. The restaurant did tell us we’d have to be out in 80 minutes or so…Not a problem with us if they were on top of the service.
We all enjoyed our food. It was Spanish themed with some breakfast options. Alyce and I were ready for just some good old fashioned plain food, so we got breakfast omelets. That said, I remember Mrs. Jena’s squid ink risotto being delicious from a taste I had.
We walked back to the apartment from there and played some more cards/drank some wine. Jeff eventually made his way over and hung out/played cards for a little bit. He still needed to eat, so we decided to hit the town. Alyce stayed home, but Sam wanted to come along.
The first place or two we looked at were closed for food. We finally found a place to sit down. Sam and I had a drink. Jeff ended up not eating because the kitchen was serving a very limited menu. We left after hanging out for a little while, and Jeff was able to eventually get something to eat – just not with us.
Day 21 (Madrid Day #4)
Wow…last full day. We again had a leisurely morning. I didn’t have too much on the agenda for the day. And no one was really feeling like setting the record for most things done in one day by this point.
I thought it might be nice to check out the Real Jardin Botanical Gardens. Generally with James, anytime you’re outside is a plus. Plus, Alyce is an aspiring green thumb, so maybe she could pick up a thing or two.
To get to the gardens, we again had an enjoyable walk through Retiro Park. We got there and paid the $5 or so fee to enter. It was outside, but James was more interested in just running around. He did ok, but had a rough moment or two. 3 weeks is a lot of time to spend continuously entertaining a two year old without your home arsenal of toys. But we chose to do this and are glad we did so.
On the walk back, we tried to get James to go ride a boat in the lake in Retiro Park…He was not interested. He did like looking at the boats and the fish in the lake. So we did that for a little bit.
Back at the apartment, we tried to finish the food and wine we had left while hanging out and playing cards. I don’t know that we finished every last morsel, but we got most of it.
Alyce and I had dinner reservations at Lakasa restaurant. We had to take a cab in each direction. I had read some very good things about Lakasa, so I had high expectations. I thought everything was pretty good. Alyce was lukewarm on it, but I think she was just anxious/ready to get on with the trip home by this point.
Back at the apartment, we started packing. We didn’t have to leave ridiculously early the following morning but wanted to get a head start on getting stuff together. Just the flight home was left…
Day 22 (The Flight Home)
We didn’t have to beat the sunrise to the airport – though it wasn’t a leisurely morning either. Alyce, James, and I were flying Delta through JFK back home. Nonna and Sam were on an American Airlines flight through Dallas. We were all in economy.
Well…Alyce, James, and I had Delta Comfort Plus seats (a little extra leg room and drinks included). Nothing too special, but I’ll take it. I had also booked us three of four seats in the middle section of the plane – leaving a middle seat empty in hopes it would remain that way. If someone showed up, we’d just give them the aisle. It was still open when we left for the airport…this little trick might pay off.
As for how I booked the flights. Sam and Ms. Jena were booked with AA miles – simple enough. James and Alyce were booked with cash equivalent point (Flex Perks). I used a voucher I had to cover most of my flight. Only thing with our flights was that the cash price one way was like $1200.
Let’s see what a round trip flight (i.e. MAD-MSY and a MSY-MAD return) prices out at…$545. Wow that’s quite a savings. So I booked the round trip flights. And wouldn’t you know it…something came up and we had to miss our return flights to Madrid. Oh well 😉
James, Alyce, and I caught a cab to the airport without issue. We checked in and dropped our luggage off, then it was off to security.
This was a bit of a mess.
The lines were long, and – though we probably could have walked to the front with James – we chose not to do so. We didn’t think it was fair, and we thought we had plenty of time…but the security just moved very slowly.
After a while, we eventually make it to the front. Both Alyce and I are selected for additional screening randomly (who knows?). I like Spain, but this was one of the bigger clusterfs at an airport I’ve had to deal with. It’s always a pain, but we now have a 2 year old we’re trying to keep an eye one while also trying to comply with the Spanish security instructions. It was a mess, but it could have been much worse. James handled the situation like a champ.
By the time we got to the plane, our section was boarding. We went straight on.
Our middle seat was still open. We sweated it out until the cabin door was closed…Success! My plan worked and we had a row of four seats to ourselves.
James liked it the best. He had two headrest screens, each of which had a different movie he liked playing. He also ate more airplane food than anything else he ate the whole trip…go figure.
Overall, the flight went about as well as we could have hoped. Upon landing, we cleared customs pretty quickly/easily thanks to Global Entry. Even without it, it looked to have been much better than the disaster that was clearing immigrations at JFK on the return from our big trip.
We still had one flight to go – the flight that gave us so much trouble on the way over…JFK-MSY on a small jet (4 across seating). We had an hour to kill and spent it in a priority pass lounge (Wingtips in T4). It was nice enough, but nothing too special. At least we got a couple drinks for free.
James was pretty tired by the time we walked to our last flight. This time he had no issues. I was in the row in front of Alyce and James, and he was pretty calm for this flight.
All our bags made it to New Orleans. My parents were there waiting to pick us up. To their dismay, James was pretty much asleep by this point, but he caught a second wind when we got home and visited with my parents for a little bit.
Another trip in the books….I’d call it a great trip. I think Alyce would probably do so now in hindsight as well.
Flashback…Fall 2015. We had just wrapped up Italy with a 15 month old and no help along the way. As stated in that wrap up, I was happy we did it (and I’m pretty sure Alyce was too), but we’re not kidding ourselves or anyone else. That trip was rough at points.
Fast forward to Fall 2016…I was optimistic this trip would be much easier going. We had extra help, a slower paced itinerary, and some perspective on traveling internationally with a young child. In the Spain/France 2016 planning post (written prior to the trip), I wrote:
I’m hopeful this trip will go much more smoothly for several reasons…. First, we’re bringing our cousin (Samantha) along with us for the whole trip. Just having an extra set of hands when eating out or out and about will be a huge help…Second, James at 2 years and 3 months is very different than he was for Italy. He understands a lot of what we say and will occasionally even listen… Third, we better know what to expect. I have zero tours scheduled and our mornings are slower/less structured in general…. Finally, we’re moving around at a slower pace.
So did that end up just being trip planning hubris? Wishful thinking? Something we had to tell ourselves to take another trip? Accurate?
Overall, I think it turned out to be mostly true.
Let’s call a spade a spade. We still spent about 23 days non-stop with our two year old. Add on that it was in a vastly different time zone without most of our home comforts. I don’t say that to make it sound like spending time uninterrupted with your family is a bad thing. Far from it – it’s a benefit to these trips.
But just to address reality…Take away 90% of your stuff at home and then say you’ll all be spending the next 3 weeks continuously there. Anyone will have some hiccups. I know we have some 2 day weekends where we’re about at our wits end by Sunday evening.
Point being, expecting perfection is unrealistic. You will have some bumps in the road traveling with a young child – or even a spouse in many circumstances.
We did have some bumps. The biggest one being that James struggled to sleep at some times, but he occasionally had this problem at home. And overall, I think things went as smoothly as could be hoped for (other than our initial MSY-JFK flight).
Looking at the above predictions one by one (respectively):
- Bring help (Samantha) – This exceeded our expectations. Sam was great, which we knew going in. She has always been responsible for her age and is a fantastic aunt to her young niece and nephew. But I think even we underestimated the difference that having that extra person made. The occasional time for just Alyce and I was icing on the cake. Sam will always get first call on our future vacations, and we’ll have to find someone else if she can’t go. I’ve got to give credit to Nonna too. She helped tremendously as well for the final third of the trip. The takeaway point from this: help is good when travelling with young children.
- James being a year older – This definitely made a difference too. He could communicate much better and tell us his problems – at least sometimes. He was still 27 months, so we weren’t dealing with Shakespeare…but any little bit of communication makes a huge difference vs. just general crying. Also, he was much more willing to sit and watch a movie while we ate. He doesn’t get much tablet time at all while we’re at home, but I’m willing to let that go on vacation.
- Knowing what to expect/better planning – again, this made a difference. More relaxed mornings and less formal tours/etc. made things easier. To be fair, when I planned Italy, James was happy as a clam sitting in the carrier/stroller all day long. It was only in the last couple months before the trip that he insisted on being mobile and in the middle of everything. Regardless, having had the experience of Italy definitely improved my planning for this trip.
- Moving around at a slower pace – This made a difference as well, but maybe the least of the four. The bottom line is we try to keep James happy – and mom too. James did much better on commutes this go around, so I don’t know that moving was as big of a deal as it was for Italy…Or maybe the less moving around made the commutes easier. Tough to say for certain either way. Alyce likes moving slower because it’s less packing/she gets more comfortable with the areas. So yeah – it absolutely made a difference…maybe just not quite as big of a deal as I was expecting. Alyce may tell you differently.
Overall, I’d call that a pretty accurate prediction. I think anyone planning a trip with a young one would be wise to give consideration to each of those factors.
On to this trip…Our flights, meals, commutes, etc. were all superior to Italy. James was better behaved and was more willing to sit there and entertain himself.
France was fantastic as I was expecting. You can’t go wrong with French wine and food. I had high expectations for Spain, and it perhaps exceeded them. Spain also had a seemingly endless supply of food and wine – and everything was such a bargain. Plus, we all loved the Spanish tapas scene.
I don’t remember many communication issues on the trip, but I’d say we definitely had a couple times in Spain where we had some issues communicating – more so than France. This is not a negative at all. I’m just pointing it out. In France, it was frequently easier to communicate with the native French speakers speaking English than it is to communicate with some New Orleans residents at certain spots…
On to the individual stops…but first, a brief philosophical interlude. I give my/our thoughts on everywhere we go. They are not remotely definitive, and I do not intend them to be/hope anyone takes them that way. 4 days (or less) in one spot is a brief snapshot of a destination. I have spent most of my life in New Orleans and still have so many things to see/do.
So sometimes we get lucky/unlucky…Stay at an awesome/poor spot or catch a restaurant on a good/bad day. Have some rough/good occurrences that are really out of the ordinary. ETC.
For example, we loved Madrid. Our apartment had as good of a location as we could have hoped for – next to a market and overall great location in the city. We were there when Retiro Park had absolutely perfect weather most of the time, and it was not overly crowded. If we stay in a different part of the city, maybe we spend much less time at the Park or miss the fantastic market. Or maybe if we go in mid-September, it is still very hot and Retiro Park is just not that pleasant – probably not, but I’m speculating.
Point being, I chuckle when I see someone unequivocally state country/destination X is better than country/destination Y when they have barely been to either (or not at all to one). You just don’t know. It’s also different from person to person based on each individual’s interests and preferences.
We’ve been to a lot of places, so we have a pretty good basis for making comparisons…but there is still so much randomness. I’ll give our thoughts/opinions, and maybe you’ll rarely catch us name a favorite something or another. But, we realize that is just within our brief experiences.
Now I’d like to think I minimize the randomness of travel with the massive amounts of research and planning I put in prior to the trip. I do honestly believe it makes a pretty big difference. Yet, I still end up struggling to decide between places to stay and restaurants to eat, etc.
So take my thoughts for exactly what they are: my thoughts based on our experiences. I make no guarantees on “place X” or “restaurant z.” I can guarantee you that I generally put a lot of research into planning our stops (unless I state otherwise) and into summarizing our experiences. On to the destinations…
San Sebastian was fantastic. Every one of us thoroughly enjoyed it. In one small, not overly tourist-ridden city, you had all the fine dining you could want, super simple/cheap tapas menus, playgrounds on seemingly every other block., and great beaches. The beaches were not Caribbean white sand/blue water, but we loved them nonetheless.
We spent 4 days in San Sebastian and could have easily spent more. The endless supply of varying levels of restaurants could keep any diner happy. There also were some day trips that you could do from there. Throw on top of that that the city itself just seemed laid back and cool. And then there are the beaches…When traveling with a 2 year old beach bum, these cannot be overstated enough.
I know we’ll have to eventually slow down our travel and spend more time at fewer destinations. When that happens, San Sebastian will be near the top of our list of places I’d be happy to spend a couple weeks at.
The Bordeaux region was a fantastic stop for us wine nerds. If you’re not into wine, I wouldn’t go out of my way to make it to the area. If you’d be passing through (and aren’t that into wine), St. Emilion gives you some non-wine options for a day or two transit stop.
If you’re like us and are into wine, I thought it was worth getting to. Bordeaux has had its problems recently – and has turned off some loyal customers. But, it is still likely the greatest wine producing region in the world when you consider quality, quantity, and variety. Like anywhere else, there are some overly commercialized places, but there are also some nice down to earth places.
For our 3 night stop, I’m happy we stayed all 3 nights in St. Emilion. The town was cool and had some fantastic dining options in it and nearby. You also legit felt like you were in an old world wine producing region. A day trip to Bordeaux (the city) or the left bank was easily doable.
If you have more time and are a super wine nerd, you might want to consider splitting your stay between the Right Bank (e.g., St. Emilion) and the Left Bank (e.g. Paulliac). I hadn’t heard much before or after that you need to stay in Bordeaux proper – for whatever that is worth. I probably would have visited it had we had more time.
The Dordogne Region was great as well. Unfortunately, one of the first things I think of when I think back to it was the unpleasant vacation rental owner. However, once I get past that, I remember the fantastic meals, unique towns, great views, the history, the wine, etc. of the Dordogne.
That said, the Dordogne is kind of out of the way in France. There aren’t many flights to the area and there is not high speed rail service. This is both a plus and a minus. I like off the beaten path places, but when you’re already across the ocean with a young child, you have to rein things in. Also, it is not that off the beaten path for many European tourists….Hence why you see many British ex-pats in the region (like our B vacation rental landlord).
Either way, we all enjoyed it. The Dordogne was definitely worth the stop in the confines of our itinerary. Would I plan a trip around it? Probably not since we have already been there. For someone else that has not been? It depends…Do you like old medieval towns, French country food, ancient historical caves, farm/country living, some wine tours (though not of “A-list” regions)? If yes – definitely go. If not, think about it and see how it fits.
Collioure was one of several places I looked at for our two night transit stop between the Dordogne and Barcelona. I thought it would be nice, but we really had a great time. The pebble beach – while maybe considered inferior to pure white sand by many – was new to us. Everyone had a fun time lounging around on the beach. In some ways, it reminded me of the Caribbean with the laid back beach atmosphere.
Maybe in the timing of the trip, we just needed a couple days of easy relaxing? Maybe not? It worked for us, there are plenty of dining options, and it seemed to not be overly crowded after summer break (I’ve read it can be a different story in July/August).
Again, I don’t know that I’d plan a future trip around the Collioure area, but I would not hesitate to stay there again if it worked. We had a great stay.
Barcelona…We liked Barcelona. I’d gladly go back. That said, I feel like we did not get the full picture since we really didn’t get to go into some of the famous buildings/museums. But that is not Barcelona’s fault.
We had some absolutely fantastic meals in Barcelona – both high end and mid-level dining. There are plenty of tapas bars in Barcelona too, as well as some day trips/nearby areas to keep you entertained. It seems like it would be a cool city to live in for a couple weeks.
Our cousins (who stayed in Barcelona for a month) recommended the L’Eixample area. Having stayed there and walking all over, I agree that L’Eixample is the place to stay. Unless you like to be right in the middle of major tourist areas/attractions, then you may want to look at some other areas.
Madrid really punched above its weight (based on what I read coming into it). I could shop at the market next to where we stayed for the rest of my life and be happy. Meat, cheese, and wine galore.
As mentioned, Retiro Park is my favorite park we’ve been to. I say that regardless of the fact that we had a two year old with us.
We also had some fantastic meals in Madrid. We ate at more classic/traditional places (at least on the high end side of things) in Madrid. But Madrid had some cutting edge places too if that is what you’re looking for…for example, the 3 star Michelin restaurant Diver XO that is apparently as creative as Disfrutar…if not more so.
Madrid had several great squares to just relax in and a couple world class museums. There are numerous, easily accessible day-trips within reach. Flights to Madrid are relatively plentiful – and short. I don’t know if our JFK-MAD flight even reached 7 hours.
Behind San Sebastian, Madrid is probably the next place from this trip I’d spend extended time (a week or two).
Overall, we had a fantastic time, saw several new cities/areas, and made plenty of memories together as a family. That is not to say that there weren’t some moments that were a bit unpleasant during the trip. That is expected.
But the unpleasant memories fade. I had to look back at my notes to remember the nights James struggled to go to sleep. The good memories are still fresh. It seems like just yesterday James was watching in amazement as he learned about skipping rocks at the Collioure beach.
The same holds true for our Italy trip another year removed. I remember that we had some struggles, but I much more prominently remember the good times. The great meals we had, the unbelievable wines we tasted/vineyards we visited, James running around the Roman Forum, laughing about our trip to the Roman doctor. And on, and on.
You know what we would have been doing if we had not gone on these trips? The same thing we do every other day of the year. Work, cook/clean, get through the day and on to the next.
You need to break that up. I (and I think I can say we – because Alyce wouldn’t be going along with it for this long if not) love to do that by travelling…Visiting new areas, learning about new cultures, trying new food, meeting new people. Breaking the routine.
I guess it’s not for everyone. It is for us.
Till the next big trip – whenever that may be…