Tuesday, March 28, 2017

El Escorial

On Sunday in Madrid (after the Prado but before the Escher) we went to The Escorial.  Unfortunately, we could not take pictures inside.

El Escorial was both the Royal Palace of Spain and also a monastery.  It is now a monastery and tourist site.  When we first arrived, we were able to see the gardens of the royalty.

We were allowed to take pictures of the outside courtyard, as well.  The wind was whipping, so it was difficult to even hold the camera still!  This is the Plaza of the Kings, which has statues of saints throughout.

The Basilica and it altarpiece were stunning, but my favorite was the library.  On the ceiling are representations of the liberal arts.  My favorite was the one representing grammar:  the woman was holding a whip to use on those who used incorrect grammar!  In the basement are two Pantheons:  the Pantheon of the Kings and the Pantheon of the Princes.  All were marvelously decorated tombs of past rulers and their children.

Finally was the Hall of Battles.  In the hall is a long mural depicting a number of battles from medieval times.  It is supposed to be one of the most accurate depictions of the way battles were held.  We found them fascinating.

After we went through the palace, we went across the street to a delightful small bar.  There we had a lovely lunch, complete with creme brûlée and a chocolate cake!  Afterwards, the wind that had been whipping turned into a rainstorm, the likes of which reminded us of home.  The temperature plummeted, the rain was falling horizontally, and we had to run all the way across the large entrance. We were glad to get inside the store.

El Escorial is about an hour's drive from Madrid.  If we had had time, we would have visited the Valley of the Fallen, but we did not.  I think it would have been very depressing.

On the trip back to Madrid, we drove by these lovely little fields.  The rock walls enthralled us.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Olympic Village, Van der Rohe, and More

On Thursday, we logged 19,000 steps visiting Casa Batallo, Casa Perdrera, the Columbus Statue, and the area around the Olympic Village.

After visiting the two Gaudi houses, we met Diana's friends, Emily and Patrick, at a very fancy restaurant.  The food was quite fancy, with some exotic ingredients, including baked artichokes (yummy).

 Then we headed to the statue of Christopher Columbus, one of Barcelona's most famous.

Then we went to Mont Juic, where the Olympics were held.  The view from the top allowed us to see all of Barcelona, and the gardens in the park below were delightful.

At the bottom of the hill is a pavilion designed by Mies Van der Rohe.  I didn't know who he was, but Don did . . . and I do now.  Although I don't understand his minimalist look, I did appreciate his beautiful reflecting pool.

Our final stop was at a plaza near the hotel.  In the evenings, Barcelonans gather in the plaza to visit and talk.  Children were playing, adults were sitting, and the fountain was dancing.

It was a beautiful way to spend our last night in Barcelona.


Having not studied architecture, I am not quite up on architects of the current time.  So Gaudi really did not mean much to me . . . but now I know and understand his work.  Diana brought us to the Sagrada Familia first, and I must say, she was a great guide.  We also used the audio tapes, which were indispensable.  I appreciated that we began outside and looked at all of the forms created from nature, and then we went inside.  Although I prefer the old cathedrals, this one was pretty stunning.  My favorite part of it is the symbolism behind the altar where the spirit of Christ rises to God.  God is portrayed as the gold triangle, and in person, it is absolutely lovely.

The yellow triangle is at the top.

The columns look like trees and branches.

The columns in the church take the form of a tree at the top, and in one of the museums, the math behind it explains why it works.  It is all too complicated for me, but the forest motif within the cathedral spreads throughout.  It also spreads outside where animals, fruits, vegetables, and plants integrate every part of the exterior.  The Glory Entrance is not yet complete, nor are several of the columns, so work is continuing.  It will supposedly be complete in 2026 - a huge undertaking, but marvelous if it happens!

Then Di took us to the Parc Guell, which is a park that was designed for a wealthy Barcelonan.  The distinctive design makes the park unmistakeable, and again, Gaudi uses many elements of nature throughout the park.  His grotto certainly is exactly that, and his well-known lizard is even more beautiful in person.  The park is a lovely way to spend the day, especially on a gorgeous March afternoon!

On Thursday, we rambled up the Camino de las Ramblas to see two other Gaudi homes - Casa Perdrera and Casa Batallo.

Casa Batallo
Casa Perdrera
Gaudi-inspired street lamps line the walk, and the two homes are quite evident.  Casa Batallo is a lively, colorful place with a marine theme of blues and greens (though I thought it was more like a forest).  With its juniper-cone topknots and many mosaics, a person could not miss the home.  The Casa Perdrera was not quite as obvious.  A solid white exterior with only ironwork makes it a little less distinguishable . . . until one looks at the roof and sees the same helmet-like and juniper-like topknots.  I have never seen anything else like them . . .

Gaudi has made quite a mark on Barcelona - all for the betterment of those who live there.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


We left Tuesday morning for Barcelona, catching the high-speed train to Barcelona.  A bit pricey, but traveling about 185 mph makes the trip go very quickly.  The train was quiet, restful, and clean - what a way to go!!!

When we arrived in Barcelona, we learned very quickly that we would never, ever want to try to drive there.  The roads are so very narrow - it is hard to believe a car could ever go down some of them.  Our driver had a little difficulty figuring out where we were to go, and he could only drop us off a few blocks from the hotel because cars were not allowed any closer.  We had to drag our suitcases for a few blocks, which was just fine . . . more steps!

We first went to the Cathedral in the Gothic part of town.  In the plaza, many street performers are around.  We saw a band we especially thought was fun, and a bubble blower blew our socks off.

Diana and Gaudi

Inside the cathedral, we were treated to many different side chapels, lovely windows, a gorgeous choir loft, and a spectacular altarpiece.  We were able to go up to the top of one of the towers to get a view of the restoration and of Barcelona.  The crypt under the altar contains the remains of Santa Eulalia, the patron saint of Barcelona.

Afterwards, Diana led us down the beautiful Gothic streets to a lovely eating establishment, where we had Albondigas (no te dije?), canelones, a green salad, and roasted vegetables.  It was a lovely meal in a very fancy establishment!

We then treated ourselves to a scoop of wonderful ice cream as we came home for a few minutes of rest.  Then we went to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar.  Another Gothic cathedral, it is one of the most purely Gothic Cathedrals because it was built in 50 years - making it built without conflicting styles entering into its construction.  Unfortunately, between the war in 1715 and a fire in 1937, it lost much of its artwork.  Its barrenness, however, is what makes it stand out.  It is noted for its slender pillars that make it look taller than it really is, and for its beautiful rose window.  This one is a cathedral worth seeing.

In the cloister area of the cathedral, geese live in this little courtyard.  Can anyone say AFLAC?

Finally Di took us to a tapas bar Xampanyet.  We arrived at 6:50, and the line was already forming.  We managed to be one of the first groups in, and it was a good thing, because within two minutes all of the seats were filled and people were standing at the bar.  Diana ordered us some tapas - bread with tomato, stuffed pepper, stuffed olives (with anchovies), sausage, and manchego - along with a beer for Don and cave for Kathy and her.

Besides the busy-ness of the bar - it was standing room only - we loved the ambiance.  The walls were covered with beautiful tiles, there were funny sayings hanging over the tiles, and flasks were hanging at the door.  Our favorite saying is below.  It says:

If one drinks, he becomes drunk; if he is drunk, he sleeps; if he sleeps, he does not sin; if he does not sin, he goes to heaven.  Therefore, let's drink so we can go to heaven.

The bar was certainly a hopping place to go.  We could have stayed, but there were so many people in the place, we felt we needed to "flip the table," though no one else seemed to think so!  I think that is an American thing, but that's ok . . . we had a great night.

The Reina Sofia and Escher

While we were waiting for Diana and Kathy to come downstairs after breakfast, Don saw a card about an exhibition of works by M. C. Escher, the amazing artist who worked mostly in wood prints. Having just been working on some printing, I was excited to go to the exhibit.

The exhibit was taking place in a newly opened palace, supposedly after having been renovated.  We didn't see much actual renovation, but we did see a lovely palace.  One example of its beauty were the bathrooms, where the original sinks re still being used:

The exhibit wound throughout several rooms, included a variety of fun things to do with a camera, and exhibited nearly 170 of Escher's wood prints.  Because of what I had just been doing in art class, the precision with which Escher worked was not lost on me.  His use of simple lines and shapes to create almost otherworldly designs would have been impressive even if he had just drawn them, but to consider they were made from wood blocks was astounding.  We loved, loved, the exhibition and only wish we could have taken some pictures of his work.  Of course, his work is everywhere . . . but seeing it in original form is incomparable!

Then we proceeded to the Reina Sofia, primarily to see the Guernica.  Diana walked us through several different rooms of modern art.  The Reina Sofia is the gallery for Modern Art - the Prado for classical art.  Therefore, the Reina Sofia holds many works of Joan Miro and Picasso.  I am not particularly a modern art lover, so I had a little trouble with Joan Miro's work (even though I am familiar with it), but the Guernica was as billed.  Diana helped us understand not only the history behind the work but the symbolism involved.  A Spanish major, I should have paid more attention in class, but in my defense, Franco was still in power when I was in college and I don't think a lot was told about the painting until after his death.  The very sad story, however, has come to light, symbolized emotionally in this wonderful painting!

Each museum took a little over two hours each - though we could have spent longer.  A day well-spent!

Saturday, March 11, 2017


We left London on Friday to head to Madrid where Kathy had already landed.  Despite a late start because of an air traffic controller strike in France, we arrived in Madrid in daylight, and luckily, Di changed her mind and met us at the airport.  We were relieved, as we had no idea how we were going to get from the airport to the hotel.  With a fluent speaker, however, it was very easy!

We had pre-arranged to meet Sarah Haertl there, and since she was staying in our hotel, she was easy to find.  We briefly said hello to her and then went to get Kathy and go to dinner.  We ate at an outdoor restaurant, and on our way home stopped for churros.  Yum!  San Gines churros are well-known and lived up to their billing.

Saturday morning it wasn't exactly rise and shine, but by 9:30 we were on our way to the Prado.  Although we have been to the Prado before, Diana gave us a nice tour of some of the highlights.  Of course, I love the Raphaels, but Di helped us appreciate Bosco.  I knew of El Greco and Velazquez, but Di helped dust a lot of the cobwebs off the knowledge I used to have.

Apparently it is custom in Spain to have a pre-lunch drink of Vermouth to incite the hunger, so we stopped for one, though I had mint lemonade.  Don and Sarah were underwhelmed by the vermouth, and even Di thought it was not as good as to be expected.  Lunch, however, was.  We went to Triciclo, a Michelin-rated restaurant.  We had tapas-sized portions so we didn't over-eat, though I have to admit, the bread was easy to over-indulge in.

Afterwards, a walk around, a craft market, some shopping, and then a nap occupied our time until 8:00 p.m. when we went for dinner.  They couldn't get us into the restaurant until 9:15 so we went to an outdoor terrace for another drink and then back to the restaurant.  Again, tapas-sized plates of scrambled eggs with potatoes and bacon, hummus, caprese salad, pizza, and boiled potatoes with sauces pretty well filled us up.  We were home by 11:30 p.m., just in time to go to bed.  It was sad to say good-bye to Sarah, but it was awesome spending the day with her!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Churchill Museums

When we were here in 2010, we were told about the Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum, vowing that when we returned, we would go there.  Well, we did return, and we did go to the museum.  It was 2 1/2 hours of wonderful, wonderful information.

The cabinet rooms portion of the museum walks visitors through the entire setting, exposing what it was like during the London war.  Churchill had the rooms built as he anticipated Hitler's advance, and although he did not know for sure Hitler would try to take them over, he thought it might happen and therefore planned ahead.  Brilliant move.

I cannot imagine what it was like down there, but the museum is filled with testimonials from people who worked in the war rooms.  The day after the Japanese surrendered in World War II, the people who worked in the war rooms walked out, locked the door, and no one went back in until the 1980's.  By then, there was a great appreciation of what Churchill had done, so they made the war rooms into a lovely museum, and they added a wing full of Churchill information.

We thoroughly enjoyed the trip down WWII lane from a British perspective, and we learned even more about WWII and how it affected Britain.  Below is a picture of an enigma machine, which was highlighted in the movie, The Imitation Game.  Fascinating how something so little could create so much trouble!

Of course, Don is my own personal enigma machine for which I frequently need a decoder!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


Once we had our itinerary set and knew what Trine's work schedule was, we began to look at our options.  One thing Don and I have wanted to do was to go to Stonehenge, so I found a tour that would take us there and back in about 6 hours.

We left the station at about 9:00 a.m. on a bus that was very comfortable.  Because we were still fairly jet lagged, we napped a bit before we arrived.  We only had 1.5 hours, which was not enough, but we did get to see the highlights.

As we approached the area, suddenly this mound of rocks appeared.  I don't know what I was expecting, but the small area it encompassed was not it.  I guess I thought it would be this huge area . . . and it is except that the rocks are a very small part of the whole site.

The bus dropped us off, and we headed toward the rocks.  The area where the temple stands is less than the size of a football field.  The rocks are massive . . . but I expected uber-massive, I guess.  As we learned about the site, however, it became more and more impressive.

As we were leaving, we saw a field trip of young children.  I laughed.  Our students go to the zoo; British children go to Stonehenge.  I wonder what they learned there, but Stonehenge is an important part of English history, so I am glad they are starting young.

We were back to London by 2:30, wishing we had had a little more time, but glad we were able to see it at all!

Hadji Murat

I thought Tolstoy could only write tomes.  Long, long dramatic tomes.  So when a friend, Claudia Floyd, recommended Hadji Murat to me - a 125 page Tolstoy book - I had to read it.

Many have said this is Tolstoy's greatest book.  I am not sure how that is possible if Anna Karenina is the best novel written (though some would say Ulysses is), but I now can compare.  And I have to say, for action and drama, Anna Karenina certainly has it, but Hadji Murat, a true story of a warrior during the Chechen revolution, keeps pace.  Since Tolstoy well-researched the life of Hadji Murat, one cannot quibble with the facts.  And the tragedy of the story . . . well, let's just say it rivals any other tragedy.

The book is as beautifully written as anything I have ever read - though I have been told my next book, A Man in Moscow, is stunningly written so we will see.

Hadji Murat does not disappoint, and although it isn't a page turner like some, it is an eloquent political read that will allow you to say you have read something by Tolstoy . . . in three hours or less!


When we were planning our trip to Madrid, we touched base with Trine to see if we could come visit her on the way.  We were thrilled not only to hear that she is pregnant and due in May (right around my birthday), but also that she and her husband Christopher would be in town and we could stay with them.  So we booked our tickets, flew to Heathrow, figured out her superb directions to get to her flat, and met her as she was walking down the street towards us.

Other than carrying a little basketball in her tummy, she has not aged a bit.  What a gorgeous woman she is!  After ten years, we are so happy to be back with her.

When we arrived on Tuesday, somewhat jet lagged, we walked around the area where she lives.  This is in the Tower Bridge area.  The weather was unusually warm, and a bit breezy, but not what we were expecting, for sure.  After walking a ways, Don and I both lay down for a brief (well, not-so-brief) nap, and Trine and Chris grilled steaks for us.  YUM!

What a pleasure it was to meet Chris!  He is in a very stressful job with Citibank, so we did not see nearly as much of him as we would have liked, but the time we spent was enjoyable.  He had to work until the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday night/Thursday morning, so we hardly saw him then.

Trine's pregnancy is going very well, and she looks fantastic!  She only has two months to go, but you wouldn't know it.  Trine is working, too, with a financial group, and she is currently in charge of events.  After doing major mergers and acquisitions work, this is a dramatic change, but as organized as she is, I am sure it is right up her alley.  We will be curious to see how she juggles work and baby girl, but we know she will handle it flawlessly.

Being with Trine is as if no time has passed at all.  She was a blessing to us in 2000, and she is still a blessing to us now!