I admit that I put my family through a lot and have taken them on journeys that might have broken other families. I’m not sure how many families would survive over three months of living out of a suitcase and not knowing where they’ll be going next, how they’ll be getting there and what they’ll do once they get there. But that’s exactly what we did. And as we are nearing the end of our time traveling through Europe, I finally have a few days to sit down to reflect on all we’ve experienced. I had meant to post more frequent entries during our trip but finding time to write proved elusive. How do you ever explain everything we’ve experienced on this type of trip? If friends ask what it was like I can smile and respond with “Amazing…” and “Unbelievable…” and in a few minutes we’ll both be on our way because there’s not really a way to fully describe this journey. I doubt we are going to be able to process all that we have experienced. Details will be forgotten. Sights will fade from memory and my account of some parts will go missing.
It’s a lot to ask after 20 years of marriage to one summer day pack our bags and leave everything we know behind, to walk away from a well paying career and convince my family to wander through Europe together and wait to discover where the wind takes us. First, some might argue it is a terrible financial decision. Luckily we had planned for this time, and more importantly, we base our decisions more on accumulating experiences rather than things/money. Also, it made us spend almost all of our time together and I mean 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. If you don’t get along with the people you are traveling with on a trip like this, it’s not going to end well. This was by no means a luxury vacation. We’ve seen and experienced some amazing places on this journey. However much of the time we shared a single room, traveled by public transportation and tried to save a few euros by eating out only once a day, or buying a loaf of bread, some cheese and salami at the local market and having our dinner on the beach.
There were a dozen reasons not to make this journey. We would both be missing out on career and business opportunities. Our son would miss a big part of the school year. He would miss participating in sports, birthday parties and holidays. We don’t speak Catalan (the language spoken in Barcelona). Most of the time, we would be living outside our comfort zone. Other than the first 2 weeks, we had no idea where we would go or how we would get around. What if one of us came down with something and became ill? What if something happened to us? So many things could go wrong. But there are always a hundred things that can go wrong even if we stayed home and stuck with the normal routine. I just need to constantly remind myself there are a million things that can go right. And just in case we ran into an emergency, we kept a FUBAR fund of money on the shelf for unexpected disasters and expenses along the way. Without a doubt, something we hadn’t anticipated would come up. Something would break. We knew we’d eventually need to pull money out for these unplanned expenses.
I’ve talked of pivots and game changers. Through the years I’ve come to realize when I have the chance to make a big decision, to try to make a game changing decision. Obviously it’s impossible to predict the future and know what will be a game changer versus a huge mistake. And every decision cannot be a game changer. Yet when I thought about this time in my life, I had to ask myself what we would most remember and what would have the greatest impact: doing the same thing I’d been doing for the past 20 years or packing our bags and exploring the world together? If at the end of my life, I could go back and do something different: what path would I choose? Make more money or make more memories? In the end, the decision became so clear it was rather easy to let go. Not to say I didn’t lose sleep or had to overcome some fears. There is always the chance of something going wrong. If I watched the news every night, I would never leave the comfort of our house. Most of the news reports the world as a scary and dangerous place: a world teetering on the edge of disaster. I could spend my whole life afraid to live. Lately, I’m trying to avoid the news. I think Plato expressed it best when he said “Courage is knowing what not to fear.”
Like everyone else, we have our moments of complaining and the stress can get the best of us. We are not immune to experiencing hard times and things don’t always go right for us. We have to deal with being tired, hungry, bored, frustrated, upset and all the pressures that go with traveling around and just plain living together for months. When we started this trip, I had envisioned us settling in one place longer, but we found once we arrived there was so much to see that we were travelling much more than we had expected. It goes without saying that it’s not always easy but the last few months went remarkably smoother than I had expected.
So here’s a more detailed account of where we went and some of what we saw.
For the first leg of our journey, we flew from Oakland to Oslo, Norway. Originally our plan was to fly to Spain but when we started looking at airline tickets, it looked like we were going to have a stop-over in Norway. So we thought, why not extend our stop-over for a week and drive around Norway? Having never been to Norway, we weren’t sure what to expect. We landed in Oslo and spent two rainy days in the city before driving to Lillehammer and eventually to the coastal city of Alesund.
The beauty of Norway was one of the biggest surprises of our trip. As we drove, we couldn’t believe the beauty of the entire country. Our car would come around a bend to an incredible view (something like driving through Yosemite) and we’d the awestruck. Then a little while later, we’d come across a more amazing view. This went on for hours and hours over the span of the whole week.
A few things really stuck out about Norway. There must be an unspoken rule about making as little noise as possible as it was the quietest country I’ve ever visited. Since we stayed for only 1-2 nights at each stop, we stayed in hotels or bed and a breakfast type inns. Every stay included a delicious Norwegian breakfast. Each morning as we sat eating our breakfast with the other guests or had a meal in a restaurant, nobody made a noise above a whisper. Cities were void of honking cars, sirens, trucks beeping or the typical city construction noises. The experience was eerie. The Norwegians were never rude or unfriendly, rather there was an air of indifference. We noticed many things were left to self-govern. The local parks had trampolines built into the playground and weren’t surrounded by safety nets, something you would never see in a city park in the United States, as the city would be sued bankrupt when the first kid went home crying from falling.
Driving through the countryside with homes on the shores of picturesque lakes with gigantic mountains looming above, the scenes were all void of people. For the entire week, the amazing Norwegian countryside and towns we drove through were missing Norwegians. The lights were on in the houses and the people home. However for some unknown reasons the majority of Norwegians prefer to spend their August days inside. We drove over 1,000 miles and outside of Oslo and Bergen I never came across any law enforcement. Driving, I kept wondering where all the highway patrol cars were and why I never saw any police cars on the roads. Then I started spotting them: video cameras. All over, we were being watched by cameras. Soon after that we stopped at the edge of a lake for some pictures. A few minutes later a Russian tourist pulled up and asked me about the speed limit signs. I told him I wasn’t sure but I found the speed sometimes marked when entering a town. He told me he was worried because his friend had driven around Norway and was rewarded with some expensive speeding tickets when his vacation ended. Speeding tickets all captured by roadside cameras. I suddenly panicked about how many speeding tickets I might have already racked up. From then on, I kept my eyes peeled for speed limit signs and cameras. All toll booths were unmanned. You just drove through and a camera captured your car and we would receive a bill at the end of our journey. And the system worked. Incredibly efficient but somewhat unnerving.
I had pictured the fjords as an area in Norway we would drive to and see for a day, when in fact fjords are all throughout the country. Enormous mountains with jagged cliffs shot up at the waters’ edge. One of the highlights of our time there was taking an inflatable speed boat tour through the fjords near Flam. Our little boat sped across the fjords, crisscrossing from one side to another. We passed homes and farms only accessible by boat. At one point we got so close to the rocky shore that a herd of goats grazing on some lonely cliffs mistook our little boat as their farmer’s boat and they gathered on the shore, ready to jump in if we edged any closer.
And to drive through Norway, we literally drove through the country. Most of the time, we were driving through tunnels or over bridges as Norway demonstrates an enormous engineering feat with their highway system. We even had a chance to drive through the Laerdal Tunnel, the world’s longest road tunnel (over 15 miles long with other tunnels connecting to it).
At one point, we exited one long underground tunnel through a mountain immediately onto a bridge spanning a massive fjord. The bridge carried us over the fjord and once on the other side, we immediately entered another tunnel built halfway up the side of the cliff. Other times we would exit a tunnel and there would be no bridge, just a fjord that we needed to cross. At these spots, we would drive our rental car onto a ferry and would enjoy a nice boat ride across the water.
All in all, Norway has to be one of the best places we have seen. The price of food and eating was in the stratosphere so if you go be prepared to spend a lot of money on food. Gas wasn’t cheap but we rented a small diesel so it wasn’t too bad. The layover in Norway was something we hadn’t planned to do but, again we decided to try something different and are so glad we did. Had we not gone, we would have never known what we would have missed. Just like in life, most of the time many of us are happy with the path we have chosen, but if we never try a different path we’ll never know what we might be missing.
Our last two days were spent in Bergen, which was totally different than the rest of Norway. Lots of people out walking the streets. The sun shone bright and we strolled through the fish markets at the wharf and sampled moose jerky.
Had our journey ended there and we boarded a plan back to California, it would have been an incredible trip. Yet, our journey had only begun.
From Norway, we flew to Barcelona and started our time in Spain. Our friend, Ines, surprised us at the airport and picked us up and drove us to our hotel. The next day we found our apartment and needless to say, it was not what we were expecting. For the first 2 weeks, we had rented an apartment in the Gothic part of Barcelona just a few blocks off the famous Las Ramblas. One of our goals was to experience city life on a daily basis and everything the big cities offers. We live a pretty sheltered life in our small town of Auburn and wanted to expose us and Dylan to, not just a different culture, but a different type of living. So our first place was a bit of a shock.
Looking back, that apartment was not the best for us but we would not have appreciated other places had we not started there. It was dark with almost no natural light. The family across the alley could be heard yelling at 1 AM most mornings. Around the corner looked to be the local drug dealing spot. One evening we were eating some pizza at the corner pizzeria (at the infamous corner before we knew it was infamous) and sitting in stools looking out the windows as people streamed by. In the flash of an eye, two guys came crashing against the window, fists flying and tackling each other. We immediately grabbed Dylan and scrambled to the other side and then tried to find our way out of there. We were definitely in the midst of the big city and, for the most part, we tried to embrace it.
In order to stop working and embark on this type of a journey, I had forecasted all types of income scenarios and played with dozens of retirement calculators and it looked like as long as we could maintain a 6% annualized return, things would be manageable. I would stop fretting about the daily performance of the market and try to look at things once a week, on Saturday mornings. We also had Dylan pretend to buy stocks in his four favorite companies: Amazon (he loves reading the reviews on the new Lego toys), Apple (it’s all about the iPad), Google (YouTube), Microsoft (he can’t wait for the HoloLens). He had some fictional money to trade with and bought stocks in each of the four companies.
A couple days later, the market corrected. First lesson he learned was: stocks can go down! Even though I knew it was probably coming and it was much needed, it was a little hard to swallow. Suddenly I could feel myself starting to worry and I kept checking how the stock market was performing during the day. My plan of not paying close attention to the market seemed to go right out the window when the stock market went into this much needed correction. I had just moved half of my 401K into Google (Alphabet) stock and was kicking myself for moving too soon. Within the first few weeks of being unemployed, I had managed to watch a substantial amount of money vanish. Second lesson: Don’t panic.
Settling into a daily routine the first few weeks wasn’t as easy as I expected. Tourists packed the city streets and crowded the Barcelona beaches so a few times we would take the bus outside the city to the Magicwave Gava beach area. We could spend the late afternoon lying on the sand while Dylan played in the waves. Nicole also came down with a severe cough the last couple of weeks. So sometimes Dylan and I would head out while Nicole could rest.
We found a tennis club, Club Esportiu Laieta, on the north side of town right next to Camp Nou where the FC Barcelona soccer team plays. The tennis director let us join and pay for a few weeks without having to pay the normal initiation fee since it required a 6 month membership. So for the next few weeks, every afternoon or evening depending on the temperature and humidity, Dylan and I would take the metro to the tennis club and hit tennis balls to each other for about 60-90 minutes on the Spanish red clay courts. We played nearly every day while we were in Barcelona.
What I hadn’t anticipated during our time in Barcelona, was the amount of time spent just getting around the city. It usually took about 1 hour each way to take the metro to the tennis club. So at least 2 hours of the day were spent just getting to/from the tennis club. We would wake up in the morning and usually walk to one of nearby cafes for fresh bread or croissants. Come later afternoon/evening, since so many sites are located near Las Ramblas, we would often walk around and stroll through the cobblestone streets and alleys enjoying the atmosphere and discovering a new gelato shop. By the time our feet made their way back to the apartment, we were averaging between 20,000 to 30,000 steps a day. My feet were killing me and the Roman cobblestone streets were not helping my plantar fasciitis!
After our 2 weeks staying near Las Ramblas, we decided to move to another part of Barcelona. Ines had an extra apartment near the Glories and Sagrada Familia area and offered it to us for a week while we found a new place. It was the exact opposite of our Obradors apartment. Light and airy with a view of Sagrada Familia, now we didn’t avoid spending time in the apartment like we had avoided spending time in our last one. The streets were quieter and very few tourists roamed the neighborhood, instead it was local families and older couples. In the evenings, the older couples would congregate in the plazas and sit on the benches chatting and laughing, and the young families strolled through the streets with their children. It felt good for the 3 of us to walk down the streets and through the plazas and see everybody out and socializing. It was like this every evening and we loved it.
One day we took the train south along the coast to the town of Tarragona, which contains some ancient Roman ruins. The train ride only took 90 minutes each way and we spent the day seeing a nearly intact amphitheater, an impressive aqueduct, some other ruins and spent some more time playing at the beach.
As we sat on the beach next to the amphitheater, we wondered if in the Roman era families would make their way to this same beach and spend the afternoon playing in the water. Sadly, probably not.
Spending most afternoons in the shadows of the Camp Nou stadium and seeing FC Barcelona jerseys all over the city, we started to notice we had come down with the soccer itch. We checked to see if it was possible to get tickets to a soccer game. After tennis one afternoon, Dylan and I walked over to the stadium and bought 3 tickets last minute to a game that night. Not knowing what to expect, we had a blast watching the 90 minute match versus Malaga (Barcelona won 1-0). Hearing the crowd sing songs and shout chants all throughout the evening made it as exciting as being in the stands at an SF Giants game. The stadium would fill with whistling whenever the hometown crowd felt the referee missed a call.
That evening is an example of spending money on an experience rather than burning money on another thing. It was an evening that we’ll probably remember for the rest of our lives.
Days would often be spent traveling around or outside of Barcelona and learning about the area and sights. We toured all the usual spots: Sagrada Familia, Tibidabo, many of the Roman ruins in Barcelona, museums and even the Costa Brava area. One of the more interesting sights we visited was of the old bomb shelters under Mt. Juic, just a few blocks from Las Ramblas.
The city life began to wear on us and we started looking forward to trying a different part of Spain. Eventually, we would find a cycle that worked well for us: after a time traveling and absorbing so many sights, we would escape to a quiet location that would serve as a retreat for a few days where we could recover and rejuvenate. This was a pattern we found ourselves following the next few months.
In the second week of September, we packed a suitcase with all the things we thought we’d need for a couple of weeks (incorrectly assuming we’d be back in Barcelona in just a few weeks), and took a plane to the Spanish island of Ibiza. Everything we thought we would need, had needed or might possibly need in the future needed to squeeze into either one suitcase or one carryon that the 3 of us were sharing. Suddenly our wardrobe turned very simple. We had been debating between Menorca and Ibiza. In the end we settled on a room at the Club Hotel Portinatx in Ibiza because it was an all-inclusive resort and we liked the idea of having all the meals and activities covered. Since Portinatx is on the far side of the island and Ibiza has no public transportation to get around the island, it’s the one time in Europe we rented a car. We landed and took a shuttle to the GoldCar rental agency. When the shuttle dropped us off, the line of people waiting to pick up their cars snaked out the door. You could smell that rain would soon be falling as the morning sky darkened. Had I known we were about to be scammed and would have to withdrawal from our FUBAR Fund, I would have headed right back to the airport and rented from a more reputable agency. After waiting nearly an hour in the rental car line, we finally were waved up to the counter. The rain had started and it was pouring with lightning and thunder outside. The agent gave the normal upsell on upgrading to a bigger model and graciously said he was going to upgrade us from a compact to a midsize at no charge. Then he gave us the hard sell on upgrading to full insurance coverage. He spent about 15 minutes going over reasons we should upgrade our insurance even though we had already purchased full coverage from a 3rd party when we rented the car online. When he finally realized that I was not going to pay another 170 euros for his insurance, he stated he could no longer rent a car to me. A few minutes later I relented and reluctantly agreed to fork over the 170 euros. After well over an hour, they had worn me down and all I wanted to do was get a car and get on our way. We loaded our luggage and drove away. This would not be the last time we would regret using the GoldCar rental car company and be forced to dip into the FUBAR Fund.
Portinatx sounded perfect and looked even better on the website. The hotel sat on a peninsula with its own private beach and had a couple tennis courts. We never had the chance to use the courts. In fact, for the next 2 months we carried our tennis rackets around Europe but never had a chance to play after leaving Barcelona. The hotel sat atop a small cliff at the edge of a bay. A tiny beach sat at the bottom of the cliff that was meant just for the hotel guests. The beach also had a few kayaks we could use or we could just swim at the beach so long as we avoided the jelly fish.
Our room had 3 single beds, 2 pushed together to resemble something of a queen bed. Many of our stays in Europe included this type of a setup and it was never comfortable. Sometime during the night, either Nicole or I would find we had fallen into the crack that had opened between the 2 single beds pushed together. We would have to wake up and push the beds back together and work out the kinks in our backs. The crowd at the hotel was a little different as was the food. We couldn’t really put our finger on it but we realized we were on this amazing island and not enjoying our time. Soon into our stay, Dylan came down with something and just wanted to stay in the room. So one afternoon we took the rental car and explored the island and found an apartment outside Sant Antoni with 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and large balcony, much bigger than our single room in Portinatx, and for less. So the next day we relocated to this apartment that was only a quick run from Sant Antoni. As the days passed, Dylan seemed to be getting worse and not better. When we went to a beach and he didn’t want to swim and just wanted to sleep on his towel, we knew he wasn’t well. Over the next week he was fighting a viral croup infection (something he seems to get once a year), had absolutely no energy and the nights would be spent coughing for hours. Again, this turned into an example of something you don’t really plan on happening. Maybe a reason some parents wouldn’t take their kids on this type of a trip. But, it’s just as likely he could have come down with something at home.
Our time in Sant Antoni ended up being close to ideal given the circumstances. We were able to get out a little when Dylan had the energy. The coastline around that part of the island had a variety of different beaches. Some were rocky cliffs where we would claim a flat part of the rock as our own and sit and watch the waves or jump in from one of the rocks for a swim. Other beaches were flat and sandy and more popular with the crowds. One routine we only noticed in Ibiza was that people would find their way to the beaches around sunset and everyone would enjoy watching the sun sink into the Mediterranean and then clap and cheer for having lived and seen another beautiful day.
Near the end of our time in Ibiza, we took the ferry to the neighboring island of Formentera. Dylan said he was feeling up to it so we took the chance and ventured out for the day. By the time we decided to give Formentera a try, it was late in the morning and the last ferry to Formentera was leaving soon. We raced our little car over to the main town of Ibiza to catch the last ferry but could not find a parking place. We circled and circled the port looking for a place to park and finally found a spot just as the ferry was scheduled to depart. We ran down to the beach expecting to have missed our only chance at making it to Formentera when we spotted the ferry still at the dock and blowing its horns. We made it with less than a minute to spare. Crisis averted and our day saved.
Our day in Formentera was pure bliss. When the ferry docked, we rented 3 bikes and rode to the end of the island and spent the afternoon at the beach, Playa de Ses Illetes. That beach is near the top of our list of the best beaches we have ever put our feet on.
After 11 days on Ibiza we flew to Madrid, but not before GoldCar raided our FUBAR Fund one more time. We returned our rental car early in the morning and took the shuttle back to airport (about a 10 minute trip). Within a few minutes of arriving at the airport, we realized Dylan had left his iPad in the rear seat pocket of the rental car. Right away, we called GoldCar to have an employee check the pocket. They replied the car would be cleaned and checked and they would surely report anything they found when they cleaned the car. Sure you will, I thought. I pleaded with them to check the car at once but they “assured” me they would notify us later if anything was discovered. I had absolutely no faith but poor Dylan kept asking for days when they were going to return the iPad. A few weeks later I received an email saying nothing was recovered from the car.
While in Madrid, Nicole attended a photo retouching workshop while Dylan and I mostly laid low as we tried to let him recover his strength for the next leg of our journey. From what I experienced in Madrid, there were some aspects that I like more than Barcelona. Madrid was more spread out with lots of large parks throughout the city. When walking around, the city didn’t feel so crowded with people. We only spent a few days in Madrid and then took the train north to visit Bilbao.
At this point in our journey, I began to get more comfortable with Renfe, the Spanish train system and booking trains through their website. So from Madrid we took the 6 hour train trip to Bilbao to visit the hometown of our friend Mercedes and her family. With destinations like Barcelona, Madrid, Ibiza, Granada and Ronda, Bilbao wasn’t particularly on our radar and we weren’t expecting much. However, when we arrived in Bilbao and spent some time with Mercedes and her family, walking around town and near the river, we immediately fell in love with Bilbao. This city sits in the valley with a range of hills rising on both sides. The river splits it into 2 sides with walking and cycling paths running along both edges. In the last 20 years, the city has gone through a revitalization and it shows. There’s a metro but everything was so close that we could walk to wherever we needed to go in less than 15 minutes. Runners and cyclists flowed up and down the river every afternoon and well into the evenings. It seemed like everyone in Bilbao is either a runner or cyclist.
On one rainy day, Mercedes took her youngest son (he’s about Dylan’s age) out of school and drove all of us 1 hour north to the coastal town of San Sebastian. The clouds broke just as we arrived and we spent some time walking through the city’s seaside aquarium. We continued walking along the old city streets and eventually followed the beach up to Monte Igueldo. There was an old amusement park at the top of the mountain that provided spectacular views of San Sebastian. Even though the park was closed, Mercedes somehow sweet-talked one of the operators into starting up a roller coaster and letting us ride it once around.
We enjoyed the time in Bilbao so much that we extended our stay a few more days. The Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships were coming into town for the weekend so there was tons of entertainment. A diving platform was built on the side of one of the tall bridges that crossed over the river. During high tide on Friday and Saturday the athletes would dive off the bridge into the river in front of hundreds of thousands of people that had flocked into the city for the event.
Before we had to leave, all I wanted to do was find a dirt trail and explore some of the surrounding mountains. So Saturday morning, Mercedes’ husband Manu took me for a run on one of his favorite trails outside the city. As we were ending our run and coming back through the city, I mentioned to Manu that I was sad we were going to miss going further north in Spain and seeing the El Camino de Santiago. At about that moment, he pointed to 2 hikers with backpacks strolling down the city street on the opposite side of us and said they were hiking El Camino de Santiago. I thought I misinterpreted what he was saying and asked “Isn’t El Camino de Santiago at least 100 miles away?” He turned to me and said, “No, it runs right through Bilbao. Let me show you!” And with that we took off towards old town and found El Camino de Santiago right in Bilbao, less than 1 mile from where we were staying. All week I had been running up and down the river and passing right by the famous El Camino de Santiago and never even knew it.
We were sad to say goodbye to Bilbao and Mercedes and her family. We even debated getting an apartment and extending our stay even longer. But we decided to continue exploring other parts of Spain and head south back to Madrid and then Toledo. We realized that, should we come back and spend a longer time in Spain, Bilbao will likely be the place we will call home. At some point in the next 5 years, we can picture ourselves spending 6-9 months living in Bilbao and having Dylan attending one of the local schools.
Returning to Madrid on the train, we spent a few more days in the city as we figured out where to go next. We also took a day and visited the town of Toledo just a quick 40 minute train ride from Madrid. The first thing we had to do when we arrived was get up to Toledo. It’s an old medieval city built on top of a hill and is best explored by foot. The old part of the city is surrounded on 3 sides by the river and cliffs which makes it easy to defend. Luckily, in the 21st century they installed an escalator that takes you from the bottom to the top in less than 10 minutes.
Little shops selling swords and armored knight gear lined the streets. We took a walking tour of Santa Iglesia cathedral, the original city gate and city walls and wandered through the old streets. There’s a path outside the walls that circles the entire city (it’s probably only a few miles total) that would be an awesome daily run if we lived in Toledo. We took a late train back to Madrid and then booked 3 bus tickets heading south to Granada. We were on the move again.
Up to that point, we had either been traveling between cities by either rail or air. The train is easy and usually less expensive than flying but flying between cities and countries in Western Europe can sometimes be unbelievably inexpensive. But we discovered private buses also run between cities and can be even more economical. So we decided to take a 5 hour bus trip from Madrid down to Granada. It was actually pretty comfortable, with WiFi and TV screens in the back of every seat. The bus was nearly full of travelers just like us. Halfway through the trip it made a 30 minute stop so everybody could stretch their legs and grab something to eat. The scenery from Madrid to Granada consisted of miles and miles of olive orchards. That was pretty much all we saw for 5 hours: one olive orchard after another stretching across rolling hills as far as the eye could see.
The time traveling between cities was the best time for me to catch up on reading. Transitioning from city to city or country to country gave me time to read. I was finally able to finish “Show Stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft” by Pascal Zachary. Although over 20 years old, the book is a classic technology story and shows how much work goes into creating the software we use and develop. If you like to read the story behind the story, it’s well worth reading.
We had rented a large downtown apartment in Granada off Calle Recogidas and only about a 15 minute walk to the entrance gate leading up to The Alhambra. Outside our apartment, lining the street and most of the streets throughout Granada were orange and pomegranate trees. You could literally walk down the street and pick fruit off the trees. Another thing we loved about Granada were the tapas. Every restaurant in Granada serves free tapas with every drink. So if I ordered a Coke for 1.50 euros, it also included a free plate of tapas. And the tapas were delicious. This was a great way for us to eat a meal yet sample a few different types of food. I should mention that throughout this trip, Dylan ate everything served to him. We never had to worry about ordering something from a “kid’s menu” or had to find an American restaurant. Granada introduced us to eggplant fries with honey and molasses sauce, and cherimoya, which is also called the ice cream fruit because of it’s creamy taste and texture.
We spent a day walking up to The Alhambra and touring the grounds and learning the history and finishing up in Generalife area.
For me, the parklike setting surrounding The Alhambra was more enjoyable than what was inside the walls. Sure, the different style of buildings and the courtyards and gardens were beautiful, but just strolling the paths up to the garden hand-in-hand with Nicole while Dylan played with the water flowing down the hill was the best part of our day at Alhambra.
We had originally planned to stay in Granada for just a few days but we enjoyed the area more than we thought we would. Even more, I really enjoyed getting out for runs in the hills above The Alhambra with the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains as my backdrop. After a couple days, we decided to stay a few extra days.
Twice I became lost during my runs in the hills above Granada. Not terribly lost, but I had followed a nice single track trail above Generalife heading towards the mountains.
A couple miles in, I decided to head back. Instead of just turning around the way I came, I decided to try and cross over the valley and take the other side back toward the city. So down the side of the hill I went and soon became lost in a series of dead ends. Disoriented, I ended up in an encampment where some people were living in caves. I received a few strange looks as I tried to find my way through the shrubs and paths and was eventually chased by a few dogs. Luckily I followed the river safely back towards town and vowed to avoid that particular area in the future. A couple nights later, I would find myself in a similar situation but in a completely different area. Apparently, people living in caves above Granada is not uncommon.
After Granada, we boarded another bus and headed northeast through the Andalucia region of Spain to Cordoba. We had debated skipping Cordoba, but had heard good things about the Moorish Mosque-Cathedral there. So we opted to use the bus system again and stay a few nights in Cordoba. The day after we arrived, we walked under threatening skies from our hotel over the Roman bridge to the Mosque.
That afternoon when we left the Mosque, it rained harder than I have seen it rain in a long, long time. We spent the rest of the afternoon and a couple days exploring the city of Cordoba. It was likely our most uneventful stop as we were again tiring of the big city, busy crowds and cobblestone streets. We were longing for a more quiet and quaint location. Our next two destinations would prove the perfect retreat.
After Cordoba, we again used the Renfe train system and took the train south to Ronda. We found an apartment in the old historic part of Ronda that we could rent for a few nights. The town sits high up on a mountaintop and the two parts of the city are connected by amazing stone bridges. One bridge is referred to as the new bridge, yet that is because it was built only 300 years ago. The other bridge is much, much older. There was a walking path that led down to the valley below and we followed it for a bit to take some pictures.
There was a magical feeling staying in Ronda. Many years ago we visited Eze, a medieval village that sits high atop the cliffs on the French Mediterranean near Monaco. It’s one of the places you never forget and remember fondly. Being in Ronda, we experienced those same feelings. It was like going back in time. We also visited La Casa Del Rey Moro where there’s a secret passage of stairs leading down to the river in case the town was ever attacked. Ronda is also where Spanish bull fighting started and there is still an old bull ring near the center of town that is used once a year.
After Ronda, we needed to find a way to get to our next stop: the Hotel Fuerte near Grazalema. The little town of Grazalema was only about a 45 minute drive from Ronda, but we had no car. No trains passed through Grazalema. In fact, our hotel was not even in Grazalema. Instead it was a couple miles before Grazalema. Luckily, we found a bus that went to Grazalema twice a day and were told we could ask the driver to drop us off near the entrance to the hotel. So we caught the bus and trusted the bus driver had heard of our hotel and would know where to drop us off.
Luckily it all worked out and the bus driver dropped us off by the side of the road near our hotel entrance, and we rolled our suitcases down the road to the hotel. It was beautiful, and the ideal retreat for a few days. The description had mentioned it was situated within a national park and there were hiking and biking trails. Well not exactly. There was 1 trail that led out the back of the hotel. Every few hundred feet, the trail had a gate that I would need to open and close as it passed through some goat and sheep farms. Eventually it led to a gravel road that would continue into the town of Grazalema.
The 3 of us took the trail and walked into town one afternoon. There’s not much to the town but there are better hiking trails on the opposite side of town. We had lunch and bought a flute for Dylan that he played it the entire way back. It was one of the best 2 euros spent as he kept himself occupied and we never once heard the usual complaint during our walks of “I’m tired. How much further?”
The hotel included delicious breakfast and dinner every day, and that made our stay even more enjoyable. We also had time at this stop to use our baseball mitts and play catch on the grass, feed the animals in the nearby stables, walk through the countryside and just sit and enjoy the views. The days passed quickly as we tried to plan the next leg of our journey.
From the beginning to the end of our trip, technology played a crucial role. We relied on Google Maps to navigate around Norway and used our mobile devices/laptops all during our stay to research and book hotels and apartments. Getting around most cities was easily accomplished using Google Maps. And Google Maps had all the metro and bus lines in the big cities so it made it very easy to get from point A to point B using our phones. However, the free WiFi provided by most apartments/hotels was almost always a problem. Usually it was too slow and inconsistently unreliable. We struggled with WiFi the entire trip. We use T-Mobile which has free international data and our phones could act as hotspots which was awesome. Yet the free international data comes at a cost as they throttle the speed down to 3G. So for using Google Maps and TripAdvisor or uploading a picture to Facebook, it works. But anything that required a fast internet connection we would try to use the faster WiFi. For example, Nicole couldn’t SnapChat as often as she would have liked. As a backup, I bought a Vodafone SIM card with 1.5 GB of LTE data we could use in a pinch. The intermittent WiFi meant that each night after Dylan went to bed, we would be on the internet for about an hour or more researching the next day’s activities or the next possible destination.
While staying in Grazalema, I was scrambling to make arrangements for the next stage of our trip down to Tarifa where we could catch a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and over to Tangier, Morocco on the northern tip of Africa. The first big problem was arranging a ride back to Ronda so we could catch the train at the Ronda train station. Morocco was meant to be more “been there and done that” type of trip. We were already so close to the Strait of Gibraltar that to not set foot on a new continent would be a shame. Making it to the ferry was going to be the hard part. We had to make it back to Ronda in order to catch a 9:19 AM train and then make a connection for another train that would take us to a Algeciras where we would have to take a taxi to the hotel and then catch a bus to the town Tarifa further down the coast. All of this had to be done before noon. At each connection, we had about a 10 minute window otherwise we would miss the next connection and miss the ferry and all would be lost.
We found the same bus company that dropped us off near the hotel also operates a bus that runs twice a day from Grazalema to Ronda. The hard part was catching that bus. We were told if we stood out on the road, a yellow bus should pass around 8:15 AM and we could wave the driver down. And so that’s what we did. We rolled our luggage out to the road before daybreak and waited for the yellow bus. At 8:25 AM, I thought our day was doomed. Then we heard the bus come around the corner and jumped up and down, waving our arms in joy and flagging the driver down.
Luckily made all the tight connections and took the FRS Ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and landed in Tangier later that day. Tangier happens to be in a different time zone (1 hour behind) even though it is only 8 miles from Spain and on a clear day you can see Africa from the Spanish coast. So we gained an extra hour to spend in Tangier.
Tangier gave us the advantage of experiencing Northern Africa and walking through the markets, eating the food, seeing the city and the people, and still being back in Spain at the end of the day. We quickly toured parts of the city which in some ways reminded me of San Francisco. At one of the parks, we paid a few euros to ride a camel and I led Nicole, Dylan and the camel around the streets for a few minutes.
For lunch, we ate at a local restaurant while a Moroccan quartet played music in the background. Nicole and I shared subtle looks of concern when the food was served but not Dylan. He will try anything. Whereas I had to wash the soup, meat kebabs and cous-cous down with a Coke, he ate and never complained. We spent more time browsing the various vendors and shops near one of the main markets. The people were very friendly but everybody was trying to sell us something. Often the price started at 20 euros when we walked in the door but by the time we had looked around and were leaving, the prices dropped to 5 euros. We were quickly exposed to a very different culture. It’s not often we see most of the men walking down the streets wearing kaftans. We encountered kids and adults on the streets with physical ailments that we normally don’t see and would have a difficult time describing.
We were only in Morocco for half the day and after enduring a lot of traveling in the morning, that half day proved to be enough. I’m glad we made the effort and took the ferry. There was nothing epic about the day but it was pretty special to have been able to put our feet on another continent and witness a completely different culture.
We spent the night back in Algeciras and there was nothing in Algeciras we wanted to see or do so we caught the train the next morning to Malaga. Since we could see the Rock of Gibraltar from Algeciras, I had hoped to take a run around the Rock of Gibraltar in the morning. However, when I looked on the map, there was no easy way to run there without going way out of the way. And I didn’t want to put another bag of wet clothes in our suitcase.
The area near Malaga had not been on our list of places to visit. We meant to spend a few days in Seville but a couple reasons changed our mind. We had gotten tired of exploring similar big cities and felt, although Seville had its own unique aspects, it would be similar to some of the Spanish cities we already visited. We were also looking at flying to Rome and Italy for a week or two. If you fly out of the right city and to the right destination, there are some unbelievable deals on European flights. The best deals we could find to Italy were from the Malaga airport. Also, given the choice of visiting an inland city versus a coastal city, the coastal city won easily.
So we booked a room in a hotel in Fuengirola, a beach town about 45 minutes south of Malaga by train. The clerk at the desk kindly gave us a queen bed with a rollaway for Dylan and we had a small private patio with views of the beach. We used the beach for playing catch and tried to swim but the water temperature in mid-October was too cold and we couldn’t last for more than 10 minutes. The area felt like the Florida of the Spanish Mediterranean. Lots of senior citizens and the younger and family crowd seemed to be a mix of locals and travelers from Great Britain.
Our first night there we wandered into the city’s carnival. It was 9 PM on a Sunday night, and it seemed the entire city had come out to celebrate at the carnival. Vendors were selling all types of Spanish food and treats. Chestnuts were being roasted and sold around every corner. We bought a serving and the vendor scooped a handful right from oven with his charcoaled stained hands and dropped them in a bag for us. It was the first time we had tasted roasted chestnuts. Nicole and Dylan liked them but they were too soft for me.
As we walked around and watched the kids having fun on the rides, a popular attraction and our favorite by far was the bull ride. The bull ride was three bulls. Each bull could hold about 5 riders each. The ride would start and the bull would start spinning and twisting and the kids tried to hang on. Music would be blasting and the announcer would shout words of encouragement to the kids in Spanish. It was a classic ride. Dylan rode it a couple times and it provided some of the best laughs.
Real estate seemed reasonable and the weather in October was ideal. I’m sure the summer months can be hot and humid but I can see the advantage of why so many people retire to this part of Spain.
The day before Dylan’s 8th birthday, we flew from Malaga to Rome. We took the train and public bus from the airport to the hotel, but that was a mistake. Google doesn’t have all the latest Italian public transportation data integrated into Google maps and there is no integration with the Rome metro system. So we were left with trying to get information and directions from the local Italians on the street. Big mistake. We had become pretty familiar and comfortable with the Spanish public transportation system but now we had to learn an entirely new system in a language completely different than Spanish. You might think that Italian and Spanish are fairly similar and one could get by in Italy with some Spanish. But don’t be fooled. If you try to ask something in Spanish pretending to have an Italian accent, you will receive the most dumbfounded stare and the Italian you are asking will most likely dismiss you with a wave of their hand. Eventually we found our way around, but they don’t make it easy. Just a few hours after arriving in Italy, we were already homesick from Spain.
We discovered most of the Italians we had to interact with were usually dismissive. The hosts at our hotels were terrific and some Italians were friendly, but we had more unfriendly encounters during a short stay in Italy than during all of our time in Spain. It may have been us. I’m also not a fan of the service charges Italian restaurants will add to your bill. Usually there’s a cover charge just to sit down and order. The cover charges usually start around 2 euros for each person. They will then bring you a basket of bread for the table before you have a chance to know what is going on. There’s goes another few euros as the bread is not gratis. Before you know it, 30% of your bill will be spent just on getting in the door and looking at a basket of bread you probably won’t eat.
For Dylan’s 8th birthday we toured the Roman Coliseum and the Roman Forum. There was a lot of walking on his birthday and a lot of history to process. In the midst of the crowds, it can be difficult to fully appreciate and grasp the significance of what was before our eyes. We learned about the lives of the gladiators and how the day would unfold at the coliseum during the Roman times. This was Nicole and my second time to Rome and the coliseum and the magnificence was not lost the second time around.
From the Forum area it was a short walk to the Pantheon and then it was time for Rome’s best gelato shop: Giolitti. It was the best we could do as a substitute for a birthday cake.
The next day we spent touring Castel Sant’Angelo and then taking a guided tour of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican was overcrowded as expected. We spent nearly 4 hours walking through the Vatican and had about 10-15 minutes in the Sistine Chapel. You aren’t suppose to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel and you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a few hundred people in silence, as there is no talking allowed except the shouts of the security guards yelling, “No cameras!”. As we stood there and stared at the ceiling, it was difficult to grasp what we were seeing. Everything was there, the art and its stories in its vibrant colors that took Michelangelo about 4 years to complete. Nothing else we saw that day compared to those few minutes staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Still there is more to the Vatican than the Sistine Chapel. We walked down halls with incredible sculptures, art tapestries, other paintings and spent time in St. Peter’s Basilica where St. Peter is believed to be buried. By the end of the day, our feet were exhausted and our brains pounding from processing so much in the last couple days.
From Rome, we used the Italian train system to travel to Venice. It was only about a 5 hour train ride but try to avoid using the bathrooms on the Italian trains. Even in the 21st century, we found that when you flush the toilet on an Italian train, it empties right onto the tracks. So the recommendation is if you have to use the bathroom, it’s best to go when the train is moving.
In Venice, we stayed in the town of Quarto d’Antino at the Villa Odino. Quarto d’Antino is a little town only about a 20 minute train ride from of Venice. It was the ideal situation. It was a family run villa in the country that was quiet, relaxing and provided a delicious breakfast we looked forward to every morning. We found a large grassy area out back where we could play catch. A bike path ran along a river next to the hotel that I could follow in either direction for a run. We could take the train into Venice for the day and then come back in the evening.
We liked Quarto d’Antino so much that we stretched our stay to 6 days. We spent 3 days seeing Venice, Murano and Burano. The crowds in Venice weren’t my favorite but if we wandered off one of the main streets, we could experience a more peaceful atmosphere. For 2 of the days we bought a water taxi pass and could use any of the city run water taxis to jump from island to island. Part of the fun was just sitting back and taking one of the taxis though the canals and around the outside of Venice.
On Murano, we visited a glass blowing factory and watched a presentation of a few glass blowers at work. Some shops charge for the presentations and some are free. The free one showed us everything we needed to see. We watched as men in shorts and flip flops would dance around holding burning glass that was dripping from the poles held in their hands. This was glass they had just pulled from a furnace set to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. They’d swing and spin the poles in their hands to mold the glass then hold it up to their face and blow on it. I was wondering how many times they had burnt each other as it all seemed haphazard. There were no safety goggles, no protection suits, no gloves. In fact a few worked with a cigarette hanging from their lips. Yet they were masters in action and the finished products held so much more significance when we realized how Murano glass blown products are made.
We spent a few hours on the island of Burano. It’s known for the bright and colorful houses along the canals and streets. Much smaller than Venice and even a little smaller the Murano, there was not a lot to see on Burano after walking along the two main canals. We did find time for Dylan to take some pictures of Nicole and I using the bright colors as a nice backdrop.
Our days in Venice were more sublime than we could have predicted. We were looking forward to seeing Venice and had pictured Venice being a few streets along the waterfront with some canals flowing in and out of a few neighborhoods. But it is so much more and bigger than we thought. It’s one of those things that you can see in pictures, movies and read about but you have to see it in person to fully appreciate the beauty and allure.
After being in Spain and Italy, it finally hit me there’s Spanish time and then there’s Italian time. It’s common for many businesses to shut their doors in the middle of the day. In Spain this was siesta. Stores would often close at 2 PM and reopen at 4:30 PM or 5 PM. We got used to it. But in Italy we learned business days/hours are very flexible. Stores may choose not to open during the Monday morning hours even though their sign shows they are open Monday’s from 9:30 AM to 12:30 AM. When asked, the locals would tell us matter-of-factly that of course they are closed this Monday morning. Then they would say they “should” open in the afternoon. Some of restaurants in Quarto d’Antino don’t open on Tuesday. Why Tuesday’s? We had no idea but wished we did since we had walked to town on a Tuesday night to find dinner.
From Venice, we didn’t know where to go next. We struggled finding our next destination. Should we return to Barcelona? Go north to Austria or Switzerland? Take the train to Milano? We looked at a different options and in the end settled on taking a flight to Sardinia and then heading back to Barcelona. It was so inexpensive to fly to Sardinia from Venice and then we could get another very inexpensive flight from Sardinia back to Barcelona. By the time we added things up, it was about the same whether we went back to Barcelona and rented an apartment, or flew to Sardinia first then continued to Barcelona. So we booked flights on Ryanair and found a hotel for a few nights near Alghero on the Mediterranean coast of Sardinia. However, unbeknown to us at the time, this decision would also require another dip into the FUBAR Fund.
When we arrived at the Venice airport to catch our flight on Ryanair, we arrived 1 hour and 50 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time. We were proud as this was well ahead of our typical arrive within a 30 minute window of takeoff. When we walked up to the check-in counter, we were informed there would be a charge of 150 euro “convenience fee” that Ryanair charges to check-in at the airport. To avoid paying the convenience fee, we should have checked-in online when we purchased our tickets. It’s all spelled out in their terms and conditions in very fine print somewhere on their website. There was no way to avoid paying the “convenience fee” as we needed to catch our flight. So we had to go to the FUBAR Fund. It cost us more to check-in at the airport than it did to purchase the tickets!
Our time in Sardinia, much like many of our other stops in coastal towns, was perfect. The weather held the entire time we stayed. The El Faro Hotel was situated on the edge of a picturesque bay and within a national park. And this park was more like the park I was expecting back in Grazalema. There were miles of trails that I could run through the park and follow the coastline.
The coastline was very much like the coastline near our apartment in Ibiza. It was a rocky coastline with some flat areas and we could sit and enjoy the views for hours. Dylan and I jumped in the sea for a swim but only lasted a few minutes. In the summer months, I could imagine the area full of swimmers jumping off the rocks and playing in the water.
The hotel included breakfast, but we were on our own for lunch and dinner. The hotel did have a restaurant but since dinner was 25 euros each, I couldn’t justify spending almost 75 euros each night just for dinner. Since we had no car, I’d walk into town and buy some bread, cheeses, meat and drinks and we would have dinner on the beach at sunset. At night, we would sleep with the door open so we could listen to the waves hitting the beach. We will be soon heading home with our suitcases stuffed with memories, and Sardinia was a good one.
Sardinia had never been on our radar and it was a last minute addition but we were so glad we decided to make the trip. Our flight back to Barcelona left from a different airport on Sardinia, the Cagliari airport on the opposite side of the island. I had no idea how big the island of Sardinia was. I was miffed when I found that a taxi was going to cost around 350 euro just to get to the airport. Again, we used the bus system and found a bus that went from Alghero to Cagliari and only took 4 hours. It worked out since there was only a midmorning bus and our flight left in the evening. And this time we had already checked-in for our Ryanair flight so we were good to go. We caught our flight and landed in Girona, Spain later that night.
We had driven past Girona on our way to Costa Brava back in August but skipped stopping in town. From the highway, back in August, it didn’t look like much. My image of Girona was a small and quaint mountain town set on the edge of the Pyrenees mountains. It is close to the Pyrenees but Girona is more flat and rests in a valley between a couple mountain ranges.
Since our flight on Ryanair flew into Girona instead of directly into Barcelona, we stayed the night in Girona and spent the next day walking through Girona’s old town. To my surprise, it was more what I had envisioned. The old town was filled with narrow cobblestone streets and alleys, kept clean of litter, garbage and graffiti. We found a café, La Fabrica, for coffee and some baked goods that catered to the local cycling crowd. It rained most of the day we were in Girona which limited the amount of walking and exploring we could do with the little time we had. Had I brought my bike, it might have been a good spot to rent an apartment for a few weeks and do some riding and running in the mountains.
That afternoon we took the train from Girona into Barcelona and settled into our last apartment in the Gracia neighborhood. We’ve been most happy here and are disappointed our time is coming to an end. The last week has been spent catching up on the things we missed while we were here a couple months ago. We finally made it out to Montserrat. And finally bit the bullet and scheduled some time to wait in line for the Picasso museum (best time to go is in the morning).
I’ve finally had time to sit at the computer and start to digest the past few months. And we’ve had to dip into the FUBAR Fund a couple more times before heading home. Over the weekend, we were riding the metro to the Funny Car races on Mt. Juic and someone pickpocketed my wallet with about $200 and all my credit cards and ID. The metro was packed and I let my guard down. It could have been anyone and happened in just a few short minutes. In fact, it could have been the unsuspecting old lady pretending to read a newspaper next to me. I had received all new cards just before the trip. Why the United States credit cards companies did not go with the chip and PIN system with the new cards is beyond me. Had my credit cards been secured with a PIN, my anxiety would have decreased the hour or two after having my cards stolen. The next day something bumped into Nicole’s purse and cracked her relatively new S6 Edge’s screen. So it was an expensive weekend. Our FUBAR Fund is now nearly empty so we can’t afford any more mishaps.
I imagine life as a sort of TV show and we are director, actor and audience. When time allows we sit back, turn on the show and watch our lives unfold before our eyes. Love. Pain. Joy. Sadness. Victories. Defeats. Reflections. Lessons. It’s all there for us to touch and experience. We can script what we, the actors, say and do. Hopefully the director side of us points us in the right direction and we find the script and storyline captivating and rewarding. No one wants to watch the same storyline over and over and over. What are you doing today? Pretty much what I did yesterday. What you are doing this weekend? Pretty much what I did last weekend. What are you doing this year? Pretty much what I did last year. If I’m capturing the same scene over and over, week after week and year after year, I’m wasting the one opportunity I have to script our story. When I find it too predictable or monotonous, it’s time for a change. If some consider this a luxury they cannot afford, they are mistaken. The locations may differ, the props may change, but your life is telling a story. Make it a story you will remember and be proud to have directed, lived and experienced. Life is a series of trade-offs. Saying Yes to one thing means saying No to something else.
There are a lot of things we had to skip this year and purchases we didn’t make. The number one reason why we shouldn’t have done what we just did is that it’s what you do when you are older, retired and your kids have grown. But what a mistake it would have been to wait. So many times the past few months, Nicole and I have been walking hand-in-hand down a cobblestone street with Dylan running off ahead or trailing behind, our feet tired and our brains a little over processed. Yet we’ve repeatedly turned to each other and said in those moments and said how lucky we are that we did this now.