A Travellerspoint blog

Back to the Med! Languedoc outward bound: Toulouse

Our departure from Andorra proved to be as easy as our entrance had been. There was no border control, but some stern-looking French soldiers with guns flagged us down as we entered the country. I'm pretty sure it was the minivan that got their attention. They asked me a few questions, and fortunately my French was adequate to understand and answer them so we got waved on without too much delay. It was less than six months since the Bataclan, so I wasn't surprised to see some extra border security. We stopped briefly in Ax-les-Thermes so I could get some food for Mei Ling and the kids, since lunch hadn't worked out as planned. I decided to hold out until our first real stop, Foix.

Foix was a pleasant introduction to France. It was a small, relatively quiet town with a pedestrian center and a hilltop château. We had a lunch of savory croustades and then found an Orange store where I got a French SIM card while the kids took a playground break. We were somewhat relieved to learn that the Château de Foix was closed on Tuesday, relieving us of the obligation to climb the formidable staircase up the hill. We settled for photos and got back on the road to Toulouse.===
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As we drove into Toulouse, I was immediately struck by the greenness and energy of the city. There seemed to be parks and tree-lined squares everywhere I looked. Our apartment was tucked deep into the old town, and once we left the main boulevard it seemed like we were navigating endless small roundabouts and squares, all of them dotted with outdoor cafes and full of pedestrians. We eventually located our Airbnb at the end of a narrow alley and unloaded the bags and the kids into a charming second floor (first floor for Europeans) apartment. The building and hallways looked like they hadn't been touched in a hundred years, but the interior was very modern if a little cramped. Fortunately our host offered to help me park the Iceberg, which as it turned out would save our vacation from disaster.

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Although the garage was just a short distance away, actually getting there required another long navigation through the maze of alleys and roundabouts. We finally arrived at the underground garage and I drove down the spiral entrance when my new copilot suddenly told me to stop. He wasn't sure the Iceberg would clear the roof of the garage. It looked fairly high to me and we decided he would get out and watch as I inched the van forward. As I started to advance towards the entrance, an attendant rushed out and waved his hands frantically at me. No way. I was still unsure that the van wouldn't meet the 1.8m limit but at that point there was no choice. Our host walked backwards behind the van and guided me as I reversed back up the spiral. Eventually I extracted the Iceberg from the garage entry and we reversed course through the maze and ultimately found another garage with a 1.9m limit. Our host jumped out again and watched me gingerly enter the garage, clearing the 1.9m roof with only a couple of inches to spare. There's no doubt in my mind that if he hadn't been with me I would have slammed the van into the roof of the first garage, ruining our stay in Toulouse and possibly our whole vacation. Fortunately, we wouldn't need the Iceberg again until we left Toulouse.

The parking Odyssey had kept me away from the family for well over an hour, but fortunately the kids hadn't torn up the apartment by the time I returned. There was a ladder to a loft that we had to block off with furniture so Ian wouldn't try to climb it, but otherwise the place was more than adequate for our needs. Once we were able to unpack a little and extract everyone from the apartment, it was too late to do anything but head to dinner. It was starting to drizzle as we left and this progressed to a steady rain. Fortunately we had the plastic covers for the gondola stroller to keep the kids dry. I had a few popular restaurants picked out for dinner but it quickly became apparent we weren't going to get in to any of the top choices in the center of town, which were packed despite it being Tuesday. As our options dwindled and the rain strengthened to a downpour, it became apparent that dinner had become an issue of sustenance more than gastronomy and we would have to eat at the first restaurant we found with room to accommodate us. We shortly passed a restaurant that was nearly empty, which turned out to be Auberge du Tranchoir. Despite our foreboding about the lack of patrons on such a busy restaurant night, the meal turned out to be much more decent than we had a right to expect. We also got our first taste of what would turn out to be our favorite local wine appellation, Minervois.

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By the next morning the rain clouds had completely cleared and we were ready to explore Toulouse. I had no appetite whatsoever to retrieve the Iceberg from the garage so I made a list of every conceivably interesting place in the center of town and geared up for a long day of walking. Naturally, our first stop was the city produce market Les Halles, It was a beautiful market with a dizzying array of cheeses, meats, and pastries. We bought some oysters at the seafood stall and slurped them down at the bar a few yards away with glasses of cold white wine.

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There were no real restaurants downstairs, but fortunately I knew from my research that there were some on the second floor known for cooking fresh food from the market. We took the freight elevator at the back and found a long hallway full of restaurants with open kitchens and great menus. After much deliberation we made our choice and had a delicious meal of magret de canard and grilled seafood and of course a bottle of red wine. All the wine so early in the day was a little much for Mei Ling whose face soon matched the color of her glass, but the experience was well worth it.

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===We set out for fresh air and relaxation at the Jardin Japonais, passing by the lovely Romanesque Basilique Saint-Sernin without venturing inside.
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The Jardin Japonais is a large park of which the actual Japanese Garden is only a small part. It is a beautiful and well-kept green space with lush grass, tall trees, and brightly-colored flowers everywhere. The Japanese section was immaculate and peaceful. It was one of the most beautiful parks I've seen anywhere in the world.
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After walking around the gardens, we found a great playground for the kids and an ice cream stand nearby.
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From the Jardin Japonais we headed southward past the university, first encountering the end of Canal de Brienne as it emptied into the River Garonne and then the river itself. The boulevards along the river were lined with the classic Toulouse apartment buildings with immaculate facades and wrought iron balconies. The Garonne was wide and peaceful, with the famed Pont Neuf bridge a solid link between the two banks.
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In the interest of saving time, we didn't cross to the opposite side but instead followed some narrow streets back inland to the Couvent des Jacobins, where the manicured courtyard with tall poplars was worth the small price of admission.
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From the Couvent we traveled south again through picturesque streets to central Toulouse's other large green space, the Jardin des Plantes. This was another beautiful park with a duck pond and some carousel rides for the kids.
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I could see from Google Maps that there was another green space at the north end of Jardin des Plantes called Grand Rond which wasn't mentioned in my guidebook. This turned out to be another good-sized park in the center of an enormous, impassable traffic circle. Fortunately there were pedestrian bridges arching over the road connecting the Grand Rond to the Jardin des Plantes and yet another park with a duck pond called Jardin Royal.
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The sun was starting to go down and our bellies were rumbling. Fortunately we were close to my chosen dinner destination Chez Navarre, which was highly recommend by Lonely Planet for local Gascon cuisine. We weren't that impressed by the food but at least we were able to eat peacefully in the mostly empty restaurant. Afterwards we snapped a couple of pictures at the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne and then headed back to the central pedestrian zone. where we searched fruitlessly for a place to buy diapers for an hour before calling it a night.
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We'd managed to see pretty much everything in central Toulouse during one full day of walking, so our only goal for our last morning was to eat at the other major market in the center, Marché des Carmes. The market was less showy than Les Halles but the produce and and meats still looked delicious.
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We asked one of the vendors to recommend a restaurant at the market for lunch, and his choice provided us with a pleasant repast of market food including the usual magret.
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We slowly made our way back to the Iceberg in its garage, pausing frequently to take pictures that would keep our memories fresh of our new favorite city in France.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 16:21 Archived in France Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Montserrat and Andorra


Our first stop after leaving Barcelona was naturally l'Abadia de Montserrat. The famous monastery is a mandatory stop on any Catalunya itinerary, and it only required a minimal detour from our route to Andorra. We weren't sure what to expect in terms of accessibility, so we took the gondola and one carrier. We decided to skip the interior of the monastery itself and focus on the trails and views higher up the mountain.
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The views of the rock formations and the valley below us from the trails were awesome. The trail was very steep in places and pushing the gondola was a tough slog. We were glad we hadn't brought the other stroller. I kept reminding myself that I needed the exercise as I sweated and grunted my way up each sloping stretch.
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I wasn't sure what to expect from the mountain roads heading into Andorra so we didn't hang out too long at Montserrat. However, the one lane roads and hairpin turns I was expecting never materialized and we were in Andorra within a couple of hours. Andorra has a reputation for being great for skiing and not much else so I had only given us one night there. I'd chosen the small town of Encamp, right in the center of the tiny country, as our destination because it seemed to have better Monday night dinner options than the capital city. Our host at the Airbnb was agreeable to a late arrival, so we decided to get dinner first. The GPS directed us off the main road towards a narrow street, but rather than risk getting the van stuck in an alley I decided to find parking and then search for our chosen restaurant on foot. As I had feared, my Spanish SIM gave me no access to data in Andorra so we had to take the GPS out of the car and let it guide us. This turned out to be much more difficult than I'd hoped as the device clearly wasn't meant to be used in that way, but eventually we were able to find our way to Restaurant Borda del Tremat. We were the only customers when we arrived, which was fine by me since I didn't have to worry as much about what the kids were doing. Our hostess was able to give us her undivided attention, and taught us the traditional Andorran way of making bruschetta at the table from the ingredients of toasted baguette, olive oil, whole garlic, and tomato. Dinner was delicious and satisfying, including several grilled game dishes and a chocolate lava cake dessert. We over-ordered and were glad we did.
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Finding our apartment was another challenge, and then we had a scare when no one answered the door no matter how many times I rang the bell. Luckily I had screenshotted our host's phone number from Airbnb and even luckier my Spanish SIM was working for phone calls, so we didn't have to spend a freezing Andorran night in the van.
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Andorra has acquired a reputation for being Europe's ugliest country, thanks to overdevelopment along the highways and the lego block style of the modern apartment buildings. However, on our morning drive north from Encamp to the French border we found the countryside quite pleasant. Cleo saw snow on the mountains and even got to trudge through some of the stuff for the first time. Our pick for lunch was closed for renovations, so we were finished with Andorra less than sixteen hours after we had arrived.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 03:05 Archived in Andorra Tagged montserrat andorra encamp borda_del_tremat Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Barcelona

A red-eye flight from Miami to Barcelona was the obvious choice. That gave us the whole day in Miami to run errands and be sure we had everything for our trip. It also meant the kids would be sleeping for most of the flight and not demanding our attention. Mei Ling was able to sleep for a few hours as well, although true to form I didn't get a wink. Given my work schedule, of course, I'm accustomed to going 24 hours or more without sleep so that didn't present a problem. We got past customs in Barcelona around 11 AM local time Friday and contacted our Airbnb host, who gave us the unpleasant update that she wouldn't be able to meet us at the apartment until after 1 PM, even though she had known our arrival time for a month. Given all our luggage and kids we had no choice but to head to the apartment anyway, in the El Raval neighborhood downtown. It was chilly and rainy, but fortunately the little cafe next to our Airbnb was owned by a Chinese lady who was immediately charmed by Mei Ling and the kids. We got some breakfast and the ladies chatted for an hour in Mandarin while I tried to prevent Cleo and Ian from ripping the place apart. Eventually our host showed up and let us in to our building. We were on the second floor (American terminology) with an elevator, but the elevator was tiny with a door that blocked the hallway so it took us three trips to get everything and everyone upstairs. The apartment itself was good, with plenty of space and comfortable beds.
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Settling in.

I'd made a list of all the produce markets in Barcelona and of course the centerpiece was La Boqueria. However, our apartment was just a couple of blocks away from the Mercat de Sant Antoni so after freshening up a little bit we made that our first stop. The market had moved across the street to temporary digs due to a renovation of the main building, but there were still a number of good stalls and restaurants to choose from.
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We found a promising tapas restaurant in the market and had a very satisfying meal of snails and grilled seafood while the kids slept in their strollers.
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After lunch, I got myself a Spain SIM card at Vodafone and we made our way through the Ciutat Vella neighborhood to La Boqueria. La Boqueria turned out to be even more impressive than I remembered from my last visit to Barcelona fifteen years earlier. Apparently it was renovated just a few years ago, and every stall seemed to have only the freshest and highest quality foods. The colors and smells were overwhelming even before sampling the wares. The first photo shows giant slabs of sepia steaming on the grill, one of our favorites.
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We didn't have much appetite after our big meal at the last market, so we bought enough food to have a self-catered meal and walked back to the apartment. We unpacked and let the kids play around a little, then ate our monkfish, grilled mushrooms, and sea snails before collapsing into bed.

Our determination to remain active throughout the first day was rewarded when we awoke early Saturday morning, well-rested and ready to begin our exploration of Barcelona. I purchased advance tickets for La Sagrada Familia online, and then we headed straight to La Boqueria for breakfast. After scrutinizing every restaurant inside the market, we settled on Ramblero which proved to be a wise choice. We had an enormous brunch of which the highlight was a mixed fish grill.
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After lunch we explored the market again, especially the seafood section which had been very subdued the previous afternoon. At 10:30 AM on a Saturday however, it was crowded and bustling.

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We exited La Boqueria onto La Rambla and rambled northward through the oncoming crowds, eventually reaching Plaça de Catalunya, one of the nerve centers of Barcelona. The square was full of activity, along with plenty of pigeons for Cleo and Ian to chase.
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We pried the kids away from the pigeons and proceeded up Passeig de Gràcia to La Mansana de la Discòrdia, a single block famous for four large buildings constructed in four very different styles by four of Barcelona's most famous architects. The highlight is Antoni Gaudi's surreal Casa Batlló.
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Casa Lleó-Morera
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Casa Amatller, Casa Batlló

We made it to La Sagrada Família in perfect time for our pre-scheduled visit. I won't get into the history of this amazing building, which is easily discovered online. Suffice it to say that Gaudi's masterpiece has been under construction since 1882 and is expected to be complete except for certain decorative elements in 2026. The church is enormous and difficult to photograph from a distance due to buildings and trees, so I imagine most professional photos of the church use wide lenses and stitching tricks. The surreality of this unique basilica is difficult to describe, and the amount of ornamental detail both inside and outside the structure is amazing.
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From La Sagrada Familia we decided to walk further inland to Park Güell, partially because I wanted to see more of Barcelona on foot and partially because I was too lazy to hail a cab and disassemble our caravan of strollers. The first part of the walk was decent enough, with a stop for ice cream along the way, but I'd forgotten about the three dimensional nature of Barcelona. I spent the last quarter mile pushing the double-loaded gondola up a steep hill to the park. I was soaked in sweat by the time we got up there, but at least I got a free stress test!

I hadn't bought tickets in advance and we arrived at peak time on a Saturday, so we weren't able to visit the Monumental Zone which contains all the Gaudi sculptures. Nevertheless, we walked around the park and got some great views of Barcelona from the terraces.
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We wandered down a pathway behind the top of the hill and eventually came to a playground, where the kids burned off some more energy. Fortunately we were able to flag down a taxi quickly and had him take us all the way back downtown to El Born, a beautiful old neighborhood just north of the Barrio Gotico. Our main goal was to visit another food market, El Mercat de Santa Caterina, but the driver took us to El Mercat del Born instead. This was the former market building from which the market was relocated after important archeological discoveries were made underneath the floor.
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Like all neighborhoods in downtown Barcelona, El Born is pretty small, so it was a just a short walk to our true destination. El Born was pleasantly busy with shoppers and strollers on a Saturday afternoon, and Cleo and Mei Ling had some fun with a couple of street musicians.===
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Unfortunately once we arrived at El Mercat de Santa Caterina we found that it was closed. Except for La Boqueria, all the markets in Barcelona close early in the afternoon. Disappointed but undaunted, we crossed back across El Born to Parc de la Ciutadella, the main park of downtown Barcelona. It was a beautiful, energetic park with gardens and monuments, full of people relaxing in the sun and enjoying themselves. In the center was a good-sized pond with rowboats and ducks.
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It was starting to get dark, and having self-catered the previous night I was determined to try a real Barcelona restaurant. I eventually settled on Pla, which was close by and highly-reviewed on travel websites. We eventually found it after some meandering through the alleys of the Barrio Gotico, and fortunately at 8pm it was almost empty. Most Barcelonés won't consider having dinner before 9pm, and 10pm is usually when things get moving. The staff was great about helping us get all the kids and strollers into a little alcove to the side, and Ian and Cleo did quite well during dinner with their coloring books. The major hassle during dinner was recovering all the crayons that kept rolling off the table. On the list for the next trip: square crayons. The food was good but couldn't compare to the experience of eating at La Boqueria.
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After dinner, we had to run to La Rambla to catch a cab to Montjuïc in time to see the light show at the Font Magica. The fountain was built in 1929 and restored for the Olympic Games in 1992. On the weekends, the fountain is illuminated in a series of vibrant colors and music is played over loudspeakers. Cleo and especially Ian loved the show. There was a large open area around the fountain which of course meant there was a bunch of South Asian vendors selling those cheap lighted propeller toys. Ian was totally fascinated by the toys and ran from one vendor to another trying to catch the propellers as they spun to the ground. I knew the toys were super flimsy and would be broken after a few minutes so I never considered buying one for him. Ian kept on screaming and laughing every time one of the guys launched a toy into the sky, and eventually one of them handed him a new one in the package. I was annoyed by that, figuring it was a pushy sales tactic at my son's expense, and shook my head and frowned at the guy. He gestured back that it was a freebie, which I wasn't really buying, but of course by that point I wasn't going to rip the toy away from my beaming son. I figured I'd been beaten so I asked the vendor how much it was, but he kept shaking his head and indicating he was giving it to Ian free of charge. I practically had to shove two euros into the guy's hand. I found it very touching that this guy who probably works 16 hours a day just to feed himself could still enjoy a little boy's happiness. Maybe Ian reminded him of a son he left behind in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, who knows. We never did find an opportunity to play with the toy, but I was able to get it back to Miami in one piece. It's one of our few souvenirs from the trip.
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The next morning we made a beeline for La Boqueria, only to discover it was closed. All Barcelona markets closed all day Sunday, despite some online sources claiming La Boqueria would be open. Dejected, we had a lousy breakfast and headed southward on La Rambla. Lots of people dismiss this street as a nest of tourist traps, but to me it's one of the nerve centers of the city and a vital destination if you want to feel the vibe of Barcelona. The street performers of La Rambla have been copied in major cities all over the world, but to me there's nothing like the original.
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It was just a short walk to El Mirador de Colom at the end of La Rambla. The tall monument to Christopher Columbus dates back to 1888, and marks the boundary between old Barcelona and the modern seaside. As soon as I reached El Mirador, I realized our best bet for the morning would be to visit La Barceloneta neighborhood and beach. We walked north along the Passeig de Colom and soon encountered a lengthy street market with artists, craftspeople, and artisanal food products. It was an unexpected win.
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The market seemed to go on forever but eventually we reached Barceloneta beach, the most central and popular beach in Barcelona. It was cool and overcast, but to the kids a beach is a beach.
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Walking back inland from the beach, we found a cluster of cafes. Fortunately we arrived just ahead of the rush and snagged the last table at the most appetizing of the bunch. We had a great meal of fried seafood, mussels, and shishito peppers that made up for the lousy breakfast. The highlight was a dish called jols, tiny fried fish that they call whitebait in the US. It's been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid.
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Barceloneta is the only neighborhood downtown modern enough to be laid out in a grid. We explored it for a while, and eventually found a nice park and playground for the kids to get in some exercise. Once they were done, the only substantial thing I had left on my Barcelona list was Tibidabo Hill so we hailed another cab and headed back inland.

Tibidabo is a rather confusing place. The top of the hill is shared by a beautiful modern church and an amusement park. To complicate things further, there are several large rides outside the gates of the amusement park for which individual tickets can be purchased. It was already late in the day to buy tickets for the main park and we figured the kids would be too small for most of the rides anyway, so we focused on the rides outside the gates. I saw what looked like a short line for the Avió ride and took Ian there since Cleo had fallen asleep. This was an old red propeller plane that "flew" in circles over the hillside suspended from a rotating girder. Unfortunately, we were on the short line for over an hour as the airplane had a very small capacity. Ian enjoyed it once we got on, although it only lasted a few minutes.
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By the time we got off the plane, Cleo had woken up so I took the kids to the Ferris wheel. Once we got to the front, the operators decided Ian was too small which I found incomprehensible since we would be sitting inside a bucket for the ride. Were they worried he would slip through the cracks? Regardless, they couldn't be swayed and Ian was dispatched back to his mother. It was all for the best though as once we were on the wheel we were subjected to gale force freezing winds. I had to practically cocoon Cleo to my chest for most of the ride, which kept stranding us motionless at the top while people got on and off at the bottom.
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The Sagrat Cor church was beautiful and enticing, but there seemed to be no way to avoid the enormous flights of stairs on either side so we settled for pictures.
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I wasn't sure how to get back downtown from Tibidabo. The funicular was right there, but I didn't want to negotiate the stairs in the station with the two strollers. Then I saw a bus stop, and a quick Google search indicated the bus that stopped there would take us all the way back downtown. We waited 20 minutes or so for the bus, as more people showed up at the stop with no queue forming. When the bus finally came, everyone crowded towards the doors since it didn't appear there would be enough room for everyone. Mei Ling is a valuable asset in those situations, and she managed to ram all of us through the late arrivals and onto the bus. Unfortunately, the bus drove a short distance down the hill and kicked everyone off, so we were stranded. We figured we could catch a cab so we started pushing the strollers downhill, but after a while it became apparent that there were no cabs and no good route down the hill. The only street going straight down was steep and narrow with no sidewalk, and every few seconds a car would explode upward at maximal RPM to attain the plateau we stood on. We decided that risk was unacceptable. I tried Uber, only to find that Uber hasn't been allowed in Spain. I even downloaded and tried local taxi apps but they didn't work. Eventually we had to push the strollers all the way back uphill to the funicular and navigate the steps. We'd wasted an hour and a half and exhausted ourselves just to get back where we'd started. Cleo enjoyed the funicular though.
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At the end of the funicular, we transferred to a train and half an hour later we were back at Plaça de Catalunya. We headed to the Barrio Gotico to find food, but most of the restaurants in the neighborhood seemed to be closed on Sunday evening. Eventually we were happy to find an open self-service tapas restaurant and put together a serviceable if not outstanding dinner.
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Cleo found herself a friend on the walk back home.
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Early Monday morning, I took a cab to the Budget rental office to pick up the minivan. I was a little nervous about our first minivan rental outside the US, since none of the companies had Japanese or American brands that I was familiar with. The office staff was OK, but I got a fright when I arrived at the designated spot in the garage and found a small cargo van with an Avis logo. Fortunately, it turned out there was a mix-up and I'd actually been upgraded to a huge Mercedes Metris minivan. It seemed about a foot longer and six inches taller than the Odyssey we drive at home. I felt like I was driving a truck, and there was no rear view camera either. I figured Mei Ling would be appalled but actually she loved it. There was enough space in the back that we could fit all the luggage and both strollers. All it needed now was a name. Calling our van Titanic didn't seem like great karma, so we christened it the Iceberg instead.
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Now that we had a minivan, we needed to find parking anywhere we went. Mainly for that reason, I decided to look for lunch at El Mercat de Sant Andreu, in one of the far northern neighborhoods of Barcelona. I justified it by saying to myself that we'd almost certainly be back in Barcelona within a few years, so we'd have the chances to see El Mercat de Santa Caterina and the other central markets but we might not have a car again to take us to Sant Andreu. It was a good plan, but once we got to the market there were only a couple of tired-looking stalls open and no restaurants. Monday is apparently not a good market day in the suburbs. I asked around and was directed to one of the few open restaurants in the neighborhood, where we got a decent meal. After that, it was time to leave Barcelona and begin our road trip.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 05:01 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Catalunya, Languedoc, and Provence

Catalunya, Languedoc, and Provence April - May 2016

Having proven in Panama that we could manage the three kids on an international trip without any other adult help, I was determined to get two of my dream European road trips accomplished this year. That meant starting in April in a more southerly location to avoid the risk of uncomfortably cold weather. The obvious choice was Provence, since it had the additional advantage of an extensive tourist infrastructure that would reduce the stress of traveling with all the kids.

When I first thought of going to Provence, I had planned to rent a villa for the entire trip. I figured we would base ourselves in one location, submerge ourselves in the local culture, and take a few two or three day trips to further cities. Then I realized we wouldn't be able to fly directly from Miami to anywhere in Provence, but we certainly could fly direct to Barcelona. That was no problem, since Barcelona is one of my favorite cities and Mei Ling had never been there. We'd rent a car in Barcelona and drive to Provence. But then how could I miss the opportunity to visit Andorra, adding another country to everyone's resume? And of course from Andorra, we could practically roll down the Pyrenees into Toulouse. Once I started researching Toulouse and Languedoc I found out about Albi, and Cordes sur Ciel, and the Pont du Gard. I quickly realized we wouldn't make it to my chosen Provencale pied-à-terre of Avignon for at least a week. That left the question of how to return. I had thought of flying back from Nice, or even Lyons, but it would mean a stopover and also left the problem of returning the rental car in a different country from where we had picked it up.

In the end, I devised an itinerary that would begin and end in Barcelona, without retracing any ground. The first leg would be inland from Barcelona to Toulouse to Avignon and ultimately Nice, and then returning to Barcelona along the coast through Marseille, Montpellier and Perpignan. The advantage of leaving the coastal leg to the end would be the additional warmth of May. Of course, all the time on the road would shrink our stay in Avignon from a month to a week. And that's how "Let's chill out for a month in a villa in Provence and go to farmers markets and cook for ourselves" became a 1000 mile road trip from Barcelona to Monaco and back, visiting more than fifty cities along the way.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:20 Archived in France Comments (0)

Wheels down Panama

A long Carnaval weekend in Panama City

sunny 86 °F

By all rights this section of the blog should be entitled "Wheels down Panama City", since we never actually left the capital. The problem is that the English language internet believes that the only important Panama City is a resort town in the Florida panhandle. Any time one searches for an activity or restaurant in Panama City, one has to make sure that the search result doesn't actually refer to the city in Florida. It's often easier just to search using "Panama" and then scroll to the results that focus on the capital. The blog title is to avoid similar confusion.

The main reasons we chose Panama City for our first trip with all three kids and no nanny were that it is a relatively short three hour plane ride away, warm in February, and a country neither of us had ever been to. It was also clear there was much more to the city than we could expect to find on a Caribbean island, for example. When I bought the tickets, it never entered my mind that it might be Carnaval weekend. I always thought that Carnaval would be in mid-February at the earliest, and we were going the first weekend of the month. In fact, the 2016 Carnaval was the earliest since 2008. This actually turned out to be quite fortuitous for us, since it provided us with nonstop food and entertainment options right at our doorstep.

Since it was a short trip and we had no plans to leave Panama City, we decided not to rent a car. That meant no car seats, of course, so a much easier trip through airport security. We fit all our supplies into two carry-ons, although Mei Ling definitely pushed the envelope with her enormous Samsonite roller. Two individual reclining strollers, two mei tai carriers, four I-pads and we were ready to go.
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We took an early afternoon flight on Thursday which gave us plenty of time to get to our Airbnb and settle in. Unfortunately, much of that time was consumed trying to meet up with an associate of our Airbnb hostess. We got a shared van from the airport to her office building but we had to wait for her to return from some errand. Then we all piled into a taxi and drove to our Airbnb in a towering condo building called the Rivage, right on Avenida Balboa facing the Pacific Ocean. I was super irritated when our guide obtained the key from a combination box on the door to let us in. So, the whole reason for the extra stop was what? I felt a little better once we got inside and saw a huge open kitchen and living area, with two good-sized bedrooms off on a hallway. The living room led out onto a balcony with a plexiglass barrier, twenty-two floors above Avenida Balboa.
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By the time we'd unpacked and let the kids run around a little, it was time to start thinking about dinner. I thumbed through the lists of restaurants I'd brought and eventually settled on a place called Restaurant Jimmy. It was a very favorably reviewed parillada, or grill, in an area full of restaurants and nightlife called El Cangrejo. We decided to walk since it was our first day in a new country and we wanted to get a sense of the street atmosphere. Mei Ling put Spenser in her mei tei and we tossed the kids in the strollers. The walk was a lot longer and more arduous than we had realized, mostly thanks to the difficulty of navigating Panama City sidewalks with the strollers. Similar to a lot of Latin American cities, the curbs dropped into deep gutters which we had to traverse and the sidewalks were often torn up or blocked by parked vehicles. We soon found ourselves pushing our kids on the side of the road as cars whipped by us.

Eventually we found the street where Jimmy was supposed to be, but there was no Jimmy. We asked a local guy about the restaurant and he directed us down another street, where we found another guy who directed us again, and so on a few more times until we suspected we'd never end up at Jimmy. Eventually, however, we rounded a corner and there it was. As is virtually inevitable when we work so hard to find a restaurant, the food was pretty awful. The only dish that was enjoyable was the octopus. Grilled squid was particularly noxious, floating in oil and some pungent herbs that I was worried were present mainly to mask a lack of freshness. Monkfish was definitely not monkfish, and more reminiscent of tilapia. But the waiter was pleasant and the beer was cold, and Cleo ate French fries.
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I'd been told that Uber worked well in Panama City, so we called an Uber which quickly showed up and whisked us home with little fuss. We were exhausted from the long walk to the restaurant and quickly crashed.

When I woke up, it was overcast and I took a couple of early morning photos from the balcony. The condo faced the Pacific Ocean, which was striped with evenly-spaced shallow waves. To the north was the impressive skyline of the banking district and the luxury neighborhood of Paitilla. To the south I could see the recently-constructed ring road of the Cinta Costera traversing the ocean around the historic district of Casco Viejo.
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Our plan for the first full day was to go to the fish market and then Casco Viejo. As with the previous night, we decided walking was our best bet. We headed inland a couple of blocks to get a feel of the real Panama City behind the oceanside condos and then made our way south towards the fish market. As with the previous evening, it was a hard slog over high curbs, broken concrete, and blocked sidewalks without much of interest along the way except a couple of roadside breakfast stands.
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We eventually made it to the fish market, which was a little bit of a disappointment given its smallish size and fairly uninspiring selection. Of course, after all the work we put into getting there we made sure we explored every corner of the place.
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We were two hours early to eat at the highly-recommended fish restaurant on the second floor, so we had to be content with a few cups of ceviche from a colorful stall operated by a couple of friendly ladies. The lobster was my favorite.
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From the market we headed west. Mei Ling had somehow figured out there was a Chinatown in Panama City. She has a knack for finding Chinese neighborhoods and Chinese people in the most unlikely places. I was skeptical, but sure enough after a couple of blocks we found ourselves in front of a classic Chinatown entrance gate.
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After the gate, however, we didn't find a whole lot of Chinese culture. We did encounter one small Chinese supermarket where Mei Ling got to hobnob with some Chinese Panamanians and we got some snacks for the kids, who were a big hit with the locals. After that, we took in some of the local street scenery including one interesting ruined house where only the facade and balcony remained intact.
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We meandered along the base of the Casco Viejo peninsula and eventually found a beautiful little square called Parque de Santa Ana filled with gnarled trees draped in Spanish moss. A charming stone gazebo occupied the center of the square. We let the kids burn off a little energy running around the square, then followed Avenida Central eastward to the touristy part of Casco Viejo.
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As we walked east, the buildings around us quickly took on the well-preserved colonial appearance familiar to us from places like old San Juan, Puerto Rico and El Centro in Cartagena.
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The nerve center of Casco Viejo is Plaza de la Independencia, overlooked by the lovely Catedral Metropolitana. Local vendors congregate in the center of the square to sell Panama hats and various local handicrafts to tourists. I didn't notice until just now that the tall individual photobombing us here seems to be wearing two Panama hats. Perhaps the one underneath has a hole in it. Mei Ling bought three mola handbags for Cleo and her little friends from a Kuna vendor.
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After a forgettable snack at an over-rated "deli" nearby, we resumed heading east towards the water, stopping to relax in a tiny park right at the shoreline.
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A little further on we found the Paseo las Bovedas esplanade which runs along the top of the seawall. We took turns going to the top and checking out the views of the ocean and the skyline, since carting all the kids and the strollers up would have been too much work.
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Our next mission was a real lunch, which we accomplished at Ego y Narcisso on Plaza Simon Bolivar. This was much more successful than our earlier attempt to eat, with the highlight being a tangy and savoury grilled octopus. The police had blocked off the oceanside Avenida Eloy Alfaro for Carnaval so we made our way back towards the fish market via an inland route that was still pleasantly scenic.
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We made it back to the fish market with every intention of eating at the second floor restaurant, but there were so many crowded outdoor seafood restaurants around the market it just didn't seem worth the effort. We sat ourselves down at the most lively place and had a satisfying meal of fried fish and shrimp.
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After lunch we walked to the produce market a block away but it was clearly too late in the day and the market was mostly shut down. We flagged down a cab but ended up taking longer to get home than if we had walked. They had just shut down Avenida Balboa for Carnaval and we were stuck in a traffic jam for almost half an hour. Eventually we jumped out of the cab and walked the last couple of blocks back to the condo. We had some time to kill before dinner so we took the kids up to the rooftop pool, which had beautiful views over the city. Unfortunately the lighting conditions made it impossible to get crisp pictures.
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For dinner we we decided to go to a restaurant called The Fish Market, which seemed to be very highly regarded on the review sites. We could see that preparations for Carnaval were in progress below us, so we decided to walk down the newly pedestrianized Avenida Balboa. Things looked like they were going to get interesting, but they hadn't really gotten started yet. The restaurant ended up being OK, although it was expat-run and clearly catered to the tourist crowd.
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The next day we took an Uber to the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal. Uber works very well in Panama, but the prices are actually higher than regular cabs as long as you make sure you have negotiated a fare before you get into the taxi. Our driver was friendly and showed us the location of the main wholesale produce market in Panama City, which I hadn't found in my preparation for the trip. The Locks didn't end up being a great stop for us. The observation deck on the fourth floor was completely lined with tourists who showed no inclination to move and in fact seemed to be trying to take up as much space at the railing as they could. After about ten minutes of trying to see between the cracks and chasing after the kids we snapped a few photos of the boats over people's heads and looked for something to eat. Here again, we were disappointed. There was supposed to be a decent cafeteria with local specialties on the fourth floor but we couldn't find it. The second time we looked, one of the employees told me it no longer existed. There was a coffee shop with little sandwiches and pastries on the ground floor, and an apparent restaurant on the second floor that was closed at noon on a Saturday with no sign or explanation. After we got home, I looked up the cafeteria again and saw reviews dated after our visit, so who knows. I never did figure out what was so amazing about the locks that kept people glued to the railing for hours, but I included a couple of photos for the engineering junkies.
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We easily found a cab outside the visitor's' center and instructed him to take us to the wholesale market, which was fortunately open for business despite Carnaval. The market is off of Avenida Omar Torrijos Herrera, close to the Tribunal Electoral government building. This stop was a lot more fun for us than the Canal had been. Since we'd been denied lunch at Miraflores, we quickly made our way to the covered part of the market where there were several food stalls with a selection of different soups and stews, accompanied by beans, plantains, and rice. We chose one of the more popular stalls and weren't disappointed, filling our bellies while the kids took their afternoon naps. Afterwards, we made our way around the outdoor stalls. The produce, especially the fruit, looked good but there wasn't anything we hadn't seen before. It definitely paled in comparison to the wholesale produce markets we had been to in Mexico and Colombia. One surprise was finding the Colombian fruit lulo, which is called naranjilla in Panama. We bought a bunch but unfortunately they weren't ripe, but rather hard and sour. We still ate them, of course. The passion fruits we got at the same place were much better, enormous and juicy.
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Everyone was hot and sweaty after the produce market so our next stop after snacking on fruit at home was the family pool at the condo. This was another well-designed outdoor pool on a lower floor, but still with awesome views.
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By the time we got back to the condo, it was already getting dark and we could see crowds starting to grow in the street below us. We made our way downstairs and found ourselves just outside a security checkpoint. The soldiers guarding the checkpoint demanded to see our passports, which was a little confusing since I doubted all the Panamanians going inside had passports. We eventually convinced them to accept our driver's licenses, and after a little patdown we got into the main Carnaval drag on Avenida Balboa. We wandered down the avenue and did some people watching and ate some street food, mostly fried fish and skewers. A little while later a small Carnaval parade kicked off and about ten floats began making their way around and around a tight course.
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We could see that the scene was starting to morph from a family event into a more hardcore party atmosphere, so we decided to head back home. The soldiers at the security checkpoint wanted us to detour around the entire block to our condo instead of walking back through the entrance. Mei Ling didn't think much of that idea so she simply went from soldier to soldier until one allowed us back through the gate, much to the dismay of those who had previously forbidden it. Once we were upstairs I noticed that the thumping techno beat from the street easily reached the 22nd floor where we were staying. I needn't have worried however. We were all asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

For our last full day, I wanted to do something different but none of the close attractions seemed like it would be right for us. Boat trips inland towards Gamboa were complicated to arrange and I wasn't excited about having to deal with all three kids on a small boat for many hours. Isla Taboga sounded like a more pleasant boat ride, but little to do on the island except play on the beach. The kids are a little too young for watersports. Panama Viejo sounded hot and probably not a lot of fun for the kids. I wasn't sure if the Parque Natural Metropolitano was even open on a Sunday, and I couldn't determine if the walking paths would be navigable with strollers. Eventually we decided not to be ambitious and just to walk back to Casco Viejo.

First we took the kids across the Cinta Costera highway to a playground we had spotted from the condo. The kids climbed around for a little bit, but it was designed for bigger kids. We walked over to the oceanside promenade and took a few photos.
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We went through the usual rigamarole with security, and identification, and body searches and made our way along Avenida Balboa to the fish market. The second floor restaurant was closed for Carnaval, but we luckily decided to try another restaurant on the ground floor. This turned out to be the best meal of the trip, with the highlight being a whole fish which had been braised in a savory escabeche. Once sated, we walked down to Casco Viejo to explore the few streets we hadn't seen the first time.
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After a quick stop for frozen yogurt, we found a tiny beach for the kids to play on. It was a little gritty but they didn't seem to mind.
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On the way back from the beach, we found a large open lot where some guys were painting walls for an upcoming art festival. They were very cool about explaining what they were doing and invited us to the festival, but unfortunately it would take place long after our departure.
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I was carrying a drowsy Ian on my back at this point and the afternoon heat was kicking up, so we ducked into Las Clementinas for a break. This was a pretty cafe with delicious blended juices that we couldn't stop ordering.
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On the way back we found a nice spot right at the shoreline with a backdrop of the Panama City skyline.
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Back on Avenida Balboa, the Carnaval was getting back into full swing. One new feature was some guys strolling around in costumes with papier mache fright masks, posing for pictures for tips.
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We tried almost every barbecue on the way back, and washed it down with plenty of Balboa and Atlas beer. Cleo got her face painted, and Spenser got a ride in Mei Ling's handbag.
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On the last day I woke up early and was able to catch a nice view of the sun rising over the Pacific.
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Our flight didn't leave until 5 PM so we took a cab back to El Cangrejo and ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant called Beirut I had spotted on the first day's adventure. It was a decent meal, but nothing out of the ordinary.
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We retrieved our bags from the condo and caught another cab to the airport, having completed our first successful international trip as a family of five.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 16:57 Archived in Panama Tagged children family carnaval panama carnival Comments (0)

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