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An Epicurean Odyssey: Aragon part 1 (incl. Teruel)

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By the fifth day of our trip, we were already traveling through our fourth autonomous region of Spain. These regions are not analogous to the provinces or states of other countries, such as the US or France, although the differences are sometimes difficult to understand. Anyone who keeps track of world events knows that over the years there have been significant issues related to the desire of some of these regions for complete independence from Spain, occasionally resulting in substantial bloodshed. Other regions are so closely affiliated with the central government in Madrid that their autonomy is superfluous. I won't claim to be an expert on Spanish domestic politics. Suffice it to say that Spain is a different animal from its Western European neighbors when it comes to the diverse priorities of its regional populations.

Aragon has been closely affiliated with Madrid and the central Castilian regions since medieval times, a union that was formalized by the royal marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century. Because of its low political profile and lack of famous cities, Aragon has generally remained below the radar of international tourism. For us, that's a positive attribute. Our northward course to the French border would take us through all three provinces of Aragon: Teruel, Zaragoza, and Huesca. We arrived in Teruel towards the later side of lunch time, so our first priority was to make sure we didn't go hungry. Once we'd wolfed down some gourmet tapas at Gastrotaberna Locavore, we were able to focus on our exploration of the town.

Teruel's old town is relatively small but there's more than enough to see to make it a worthwhile stop if not an overnight stay. The Iglesia de San Pedro was our first exposure to Mudéjar architecture. This movement was a fusion of Gothic and Islamic influences that came about from the period of peaceful coexistence between Catholic and Muslim populations in the aftermath of the reconquest of central Spain. This coexistence ended when virtually the entire Muslim population was expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in the early 17th century, but fortunately the Muslim-influenced art and architecture has survived to this day. The church has a polygonal apse with minaret-like towers at the vertices and a separate bell tower that looked like it had undergone a modern renovation.

Some more wandering took us to Teruel's main square, Plaza del Torico. which is at the confluence of seven streets that extend into all different parts of the old town. The square had buildings whose beauty rivaled the most impressive specimens of Valencia and Barcelona, especially the surreal and lavender Casa del Torico.

Despite the allure of the old town, the streets were quiet and empty on a weekday afternoon. Perhaps that's why the unofficial motto of the town is "Teruel exists!". Of course, nothing makes us happier to encounter an atmospheric jewel in the middle of nowhere and have it almost entirely to ourselves. We explored more of the old town which contains several impressive Mudéjar towers, one of which is part of the Teruel Cathedral.

We had saved Teruel's most famous attraction for last, the Escalinata del Ovalo. This lengthy and elaborate outdoor staircase was only constructed a century ago, but was carefully designed to complement the original Mudéjar landmarks of the town. The staircase descends from the edge of the old town to the railway station below. We didn't have the time or the energy to descend the entire way, but we got a close look at the ornate landings and intricate brick banisters.

Half an hour from Teruel via a small local highway is Albarracín, reputed to be one of the most beautiful villages in Spain. The ancient town covers a steep hill nestled in a curve of the Río Guadalaviar, with the main road passing through a tunnel underneath. Once we arrived both Ian and Spenser were sleeping so we had no choice but to strap Spenser onto my back and take a stroller for Ian. We were already winded from climbing partway up the hill once we arrived at the foot of the town. High above us we could see the old city walls at the top of a hill. Facing south from the city we had views of the Albarracín Cathedral and the Castillo. To the southwest across the Guadalaviar were the classic scrub-covered rolling hills of Aragon.

Upon entering the town, we immediately found ourselves in the main square Plaza Mayor. From the square, narrow roads squiggled off upward and downward into the different levels of the town. We probably could have done more exploration if everyone was awake, but pushing the stroller up steep cobblestone roads quickly lost its appeal and we decided we had captured the essence of Albarracín.

We had a typically complicated arrival in Zaragoza. A main avenue brought us to the central neighborhood of El Gancho, where our Airbnb was situated, but the GPS then directed us into a narrow alley that I worried might lead us to an impassable situation. There was nowhere to stop on the street, so I drove up onto the sidewalk and I set out on foot on my own to locate the Airbnb. I soon found it and had the host explain to me the best way to bring the car up to the door. When I got back, Mei Ling had moved the car off the sidewalk and into the bus stop on the street. Apparently the cops had come by and forced her to move, although I can't imagine why it was better to have the car obstructing a bus stop than partially blocking a sidewalk. She told me they said they would be back shortly so we hurriedly took off and made our way back to the Airbnb, where the best news was that there was a working AC that hadn't been mentioned in the listing. It's rarely simple to find parking in Spanish cities, but central Zaragoza was locked down. I drove around the local streets for about fifteen minutes but every block was lined bumper to bumper with parked cars. Eventually I realized it was futile and parked in a supermarket garage, which turned out to be the most expensive one in the area.

El Gancho might not have been the best choice for parking, but it was the perfect location for getting around by foot. We didn't touch the car again for the remainder of our time in Zaragoza. Virtually everything of interest to a typical tourist is concentrated in a narrow area on the southern bank of the Río Ebro, the major river that arises in the Cantabrian mountains and courses eastward to the Mediterranean, splitting the region of Aragon in half. A few blocks to our east was the Casco Antiguo, or old town, with the central market and the famous Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. On our other side was the Aljafería Palace. We headed in the direction of the old town to find a restaurant, passing some amazing urban artwork on the way. At one major intersection I was amused to see the first American ethnic food store I've ever encountered. Of course, it makes complete sense. In the US we have plenty of Spanish, Italian, Greek, and other ethnic markets. Why wouldn't there be an American market in Spain? Unfortunately it was closed so I couldn't find out what typical American delicacies might be. Cheez Whiz? Frozen corn dogs?

We walked a couple of blocks away from the old town to find the restaurant I'd chosen from TripAdvisor, but it turned out to be full with an impossibly long wait despite the fact that it was only 8 pm on a Wednesday. I hate getting denied by a restaurant I've picked out because I can't escape the feeling that we lost our chance to have a legendary meal, and we'll never know what we missed. I wanted to retrace our steps back to the old town but Mei Ling shook her head and pointed in the opposite direction, which didn't look promising to me at all. I know better than to insist on my own plans, especially when I've just screwed up, so we headed down the wide and almost empty street Mei Ling had chosen. After a couple of minutes, we came across what looked like a little open-fronted mall with an escalator going upward. We could see clear signs of restaurant activity on the second floor and immediately realized we'd arrived at some kind of food court. Once we were upstairs, we knew we had found the most perfect possible place for us to eat. There were about a dozen stalls with every variety of Spanish food, from fresh seafood cooked to order to unusual and savory tapas such as octopus eggs. My favorite dish was the land snails, which I found crawling around a large bowl at the front counter of a tapas stall. When I placed my order, the hostess scooped up a few handfuls of the live snails and had a delicious dish ready for us in about twenty minutes. My regret at being turned away from the other restaurant instantly turned to consummate relief that we hadn't missed the opportunity to eat at Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica. It was our most enjoyable restaurant meal of the trip and overall an amazing experience. Mei Ling had done it again.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:33 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Valencia part 2 (incl. Xativa)

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South of Ciutat Vella, Valencia expands outward in a series of concentric rings separated by wide boulevards. The railroad lines coursing southward split modern Valencia down the middle. My research indicated there was little of interest to travelers in most of these modern, residential neighborhoods with the exception of a small area called Ruzafa (or Russafa in Valencian dialect). Ruzafa has become the hip, Bohemian neighborhood of Valencia with a heavy concentration of boutiques and cafes and it has its own covered market. We decided to start the day with breakfast in the market and explore the area.

The market was much less busy than Mercat Central, but we found some interesting displays of wild mushrooms and seaweeds that were unlike anything we'd seen the previous day. Of course, the ubiquitous delis with every conceivable permutation of jamon and queso were around every corner.

We eventually found the small food court where there was just one tapas stall. There was enough there to construct a meal along with some food we had bought in the market. We were obviously the only customers who weren't local, which was a nice change in milieu from the touristy atmosphere of Mercat Central.

There were a few small, old streets around the market that gave way to wider avenues lined with well-maintained, colorful townhouses that were quintessentially European. It was a pleasant place to stroll but at mid-morning on a weekday there was a distinct lack of pedestrian traffic and energy.

We had no interest in returning to Ciutat Vella, which meant that it was the perfect moment to embark on a day trip out of Valencia. I had already selected the town and castle of Xàtiva as our destination if we had the time. The town was only 45 minutes south of Valencia, and the castle was supposed to be the most beautiful in the region. Valencia, of course, is also the name one of Spain's seventeen autonomous regions. The region occupies much of the Mediterranean coast with the city of Valencia near the center. Outside of the city of Valencia, the region gets little attention from travelers with the exception of the Costa Blanca resort area to the south. However, there are certainly hidden gems like Alicante and Peñiscola that we hope to explore when we eventually return to Valencia.

After some initial misdirection from our GPS, we arrived at the sequence of sharp hairpin turns that ascends to Castell de Xàtiva. Once we were on foot, it was a fairly easy ascent up wide, shallow staircases to viewpoints from the ramparts of Castell Major. We didn't explore Castell Menor but we had beautiful views of it along with the medieval town beneath us. Outside of the old town was a peripheral layer of apartment blocks which gave way to warehouses and then fields that extended to a thin ridge of hills to the north.

We decided to have lunch in the old town and found it nearly deserted of pedestrians, although there seemed to be plenty of vehicles passing through. Once we arrived at our restaurant, we found it surprisingly crowded. The hostess gave us a sorrowful look and gestured at the tables, where the diners showed no signs of preparing to leave despite having mostly finished their meals. After about twenty minutes we were seated and had a decent if unmemorable lunch.

On the way back to Valencia we detoured briefly to Parc Natural De l'Albufera, a favorite weekend getaway for Valencianos. The park consists mainly of marshland surrounding a large freshwater lagoon, and some secluded beaches. The main activity aside from hiking and birdwatching is a boat ride on the lagoon. We found our way to the sleepy little town of El Palmar at the southern end of the isthmus between the lagoon and the ocean. The town is famous for its paella, but it was too early for any restaurants to be open. We drove across the isthmus keeping our eyes out for anyone offering boat rides, but I was inwardly relieved when we didn't spot anyone. It had already been a long day and we still had to find dinner.

We arrived back in Valencia in time to experience another amazing feature of Jardín del Turia, the Parc Gulliver. This unique playground consists of a 70 meter three dimensional representation of Gulliver tied to the ground by the Lilliputians. His hair and clothes are covered with slides, ropes, and nets that can entertain dozens of kids at a time. The kids had an absolute blast, and fortunately they didn't notice the tumescent gargoyle overlooking the park entrance when we left.

We thought we might find dinner at Mercat de Colón, a beautiful old market building between Jardín del Turia and Ciutat Vella. Inside we found a large selection of upscale boutiques as well as cafes crowded with Spaniards drinking lemonade and horchata, but nowhere that seemed likely to serve a substantial meal. We tried some overpriced sushi on the lower level, but finally gave up and searched online for a real restaurant in the area. We ended up at Panamera a couple of blocks to the south where we had a decent meal including the requisite Valencian paella as well as sangria.

Our three days in Valencia absolutely flew by. We regretfully took our leave on the final morning and made a stop at the seaside neighborhood of El Cabanyal. One of the interesting things about Valencia is that unlike other major European coastal cities, the neighborhoods near the beach are residential and largely devoid of tourists. El Cabanyal had some pleasant-looking buildings, but didn't particularly stand out after all the beautiful areas of Valencia we'd already seen. The Mercat Cabanyal was the weakest of the three covered markets we'd visited in Valencia, although certainly adequate for the basics.

From El Cabanyal, we drove to Valencia's famous Malvarrosa Beach. I had an idea that we might stop for lunch in one of the beach seafood restaurants, but Mei Ling went to scout a couple out and didn't find anything good to report. I was eager to get on the road, as we had a couple of stops on the way to Zaragoza, so we contented ourselves with a distant view of the beach from the road as we drove north out of Valencia. We felt the satisfaction of accomplishing everything we had planned for our stay in Valencia, but we had the distinct feeling there was still much more to discover. We decided that if we ever followed through on our plan to stay in a single city for a month to study Spanish and live like natives, it would be Valencia.

If this entry has awakened an interest in Valencia, I strongly recommend taking a look at this blog. I already linked to a couple of the entries earlier. The authors spend three months in each city they write about and then move to a new one. It's the most comprehensive and helpful guide to Valencia that I've come across in my research, and I plan to read every word in their Istanbul section as well before we go there this spring.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:28 Archived in Spain Tagged xativa russafa Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Valencia part 1 (incl. Ciutat Vella)

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Spain's third largest city is nowhere near as well-known as the huge metropolises of Madrid and Barcelona, yet it has much to offer travelers that can't be found elsewhere in the country. I remembered the beauty and energy of the old town from my prior visit seventeen years earlier, and not much else. We'd carefully selected an Airbnb at the edge of the Ciutat Vella, close to the Mercat Central but not deep enough inside the historic district to make our arrival logistically difficult. As it was, we had our usual trouble locating the apartment but eventually coordinated with our host to find the special route that would bring our car to the entrance. I chose the simplest and most expensive option of parking the car in a public garage a block away, rather than trying to negotiate with the owner of a ramshackle private lot inside the Ciutat Vella.

The Airbnb was a significant upgrade over the one in Cuenca, both in terms of space and air conditioning. There was also a kitchen one could move around in, which was an important consideration given that we were a hundred yards from the largest market in the city. We immediately set off to discover the Ciutat Vella. We walked northward on the western edge of the old town until we reached the Torres de Quart, an unusual-looking fortification that looks as though it was chopped in half by a giant cleaver. The tower is one of the few remnants of the wall that once encircled Valencia when the old town was the entire city. The flat, inner side of the tower is a complex display of arches and narrow staircases reminiscent of an Escher print.

We turned inward to wander the narrow streets of the heavily graffitied ancient neighborhood. Despite the cobblestone streets, the area was not pedestrianized and I had to keep a close eye on the kids as many blocks had little in the way of sidewalks.

Valencia is well-known for street art, and we were amazed by the sheer size of the pieces that covered the entire walls of some apartment buildings. The paintings stood out for their vibrant color and powerful, graphic imagery that was accentuated by the antiquated setting.

We gravitated naturally to the Barrio del Carmen, the most bohemian and scenic part of the old town, where we fortuitously encountered a quite large and noisy parade. Soon afterward we lucked upon an excellent restaurant where we had squid ink paella and other dishes with a view of the amazing Baroque facade of Parroquia de la Santísima Cruz. Even the smell of urine wafting in from Plaza del Carmen couldn't dampen our spirits as we enjoyed our al fresco dinner in the energetic square.


After dinner we took a different route back towards the Airbnb through the gathering dusk. We soon encountered the other remaining fortification of the old wall, Torres de Serranos, at the eastern edge of Barrio del Carmen. The major buildings were illuminated by streetlights that reflected off the paved squares to give the walls an attractive golden hue. At this time, people were beginning to flood into the old town and the energy level was palpable.large_IMG_0363.JPGlarge_IMG_0370.JPGlarge_IMG_0376.JPG

We were almost home when we heard the loud music in the opposite direction from the Airbnb. After some brief debate, we decided it was still too early in the trip to turn down potential adventures. We turned and walked in the direction of the music, and after a block found ourselves at Plaza del Ayuntamiento. the home of the architecturally magnificent Town Hall and Central Post Office. On this evening , it was the site of a cultural fair and a band was playing on a ground level stage. Some of the people dancing were Frenchmen celebrating their country's World Cup victory earlier that day. It was an entertaining scene in a breathtaking setting, and we were glad we'd taken the extra hour to experience it. When we finally returned home, we felt like we'd squeezed everything we could out of our first full day on the road trip.

Even though Monday isn't the best day for markets in Southern Europe, we attacked Mercat Central as soon as we were able to get out of the apartment. You may have noticed the word "mercat" for market instead of the Spanish "mercado". Valencia claims to have its own language, although many consider it indistinguishable from Catalan. It's probably not advisable to say that in Valencia, however. The market has an unusually elaborate Art Nouveau exterior with Moorish designs and a cathedral-like dome.

The market was large and busy enough that it seemed to be in full swing on a Monday, with the exception of the seafood section. Most of the stalls selling freshly-caught fish were closed, but there was still a good selection of shellfish including percebes (goose barnacles), one of our favorites.

There was a good variety of produce as well as a decent amount of gourmet offerings. One thing that epitomizes Spain for me is the sight of endless rows of jamón hanging from the ceiling of a market deli.

After whetting our appetites walking around the market, we were thrilled to find a busy tapas restaurant within the market where we enjoyed a solid brunch. The last thing we did before leaving the market was buy a small black truffle, despite the fact that it was well out of season. For the relatively low price, we decided we might as well give it a shot.

Once we had explored every corner of Mercat Central, we returned to the parking garage and drove to the Valencia Aquarium at the southern end of Jardín del Turia. Turia is one of the most unique urban parks we've encountered on our travels, the end product of a huge engineering project. The space now occupied by the park was once the site of the Turia river, which would often overflow its banks and flood the surrounding neighborhood. In the middle of the 20th century, the Turia river was diverted south of the city center and the dry riverbed was converted into parkland. Jardín del Turia looks just like a snake slithering over a large rock, the Ciutat Vella.

The Oceanografic Aquarium sits at the very tail end of the snake. It's Europe's largest aquarium by square footage, but I suspect they're counting the enormous cafeterias, shallow ponds, and sizable expanses of concrete walkways with no sea life in sight. The layout of the aquarium is very inefficient, and we were surprised by how little there actually was to see. When we arrived at the dolphin show an attendant told me it was just about to begin, and then we waited 45 minutes before there was any sign of dolphins. Once we finished with that, we were so tired of the place that we left without seeing the sharks and beluga whales which were probably the top highlight. Overall the experience fell far short of the Lisbon aquarium, regardless of square footage.

Just north of the aquarium are the enormous, futuristic structures of the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias. The complex contains a science museum, a planetarium, an IMAX theater, and an opera hall among other facilities in three separate buildings that were designed by Valencia's native son Santiago Calatrava. One of the coolest things about the buildings is that they look completely different when viewed from different angles and heights. There are also three large rectangular ponds within the complex in which one can go rowing, waterbiking, or even waterballing. What's waterballing? Cleo and Spenser are doing it in the video at the bottom. Ian sadly fell asleep and missed all the fun.

One thing that was in short supply at Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias was shade. We held out as long as we could but eventually the heat sapped our energy and we retired back to the old town for dinner. The touristic center of Valencia is Plaza de la Virgen, a wide open square lined with cafes and restaurants facing the stunning Cathedral de Santa Maria and the Fuente del Turia. This was a good spot to let the kids run around for a bit and soak up some of the pure energy of the old city. This time we didn't find an impromptu late night party and we got to sleep relatively early.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:33 Archived in Spain Tagged travel valencia blog tony ciutat_vella ciudad_de_las_artes_y_las_cienc friedman Comments (2)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Arrival and Cuenca

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Sometime after our second or third European road trip, I realized it might be possible for Mei Ling and I to see every part of Europe that we found interesting during our lifetimes. Having a car completely changes the experience of European travel. Everything is within reach as long as there's a road, and there's no need to be limited to cities and sights that are accessible to public transportation. I've already established tentative itineraries that will take us to every country in Europe except for Cyprus and Moldova. When we have a block of time available to travel in Europe I just need to pick the trip that best fits our mood and energy level. This time round I knew we would already be tired from just having dealt with all three kids on a two week trip in New England, so I picked one of the most logistically simple itineraries that would take us through familiar countries with strong tourism infrastructure. The other advantage was that we would be traveling through many of the top food and wine regions in the world on one trip. Since the main focus was going to be culinary I dubbed this trip "The Epicurean Odyssey".

The germ of the itinerary lay in my long desire to visit Galicia, a region of Spain that had always fascinated me for its remoteness and intimate association with the ocean. I had visions of markets laden with endless fish and mollusks, and beautiful views from rocky cliffs at the shoreline. I was also very eager to visit Bordeaux, the only area of southern France we hadn't been to, so the logical plan was to combine both into one road trip. That naturally meant flying into Madrid, which we had visited four years earlier but had loved and vowed to return to. I decided to stretch the trip to five full weeks, which would make it our longest European road trip and allow us to include Valencia and the Dordogne region of France. We had originally planned to stop in Barcelona as well, mainly to go back to the Boqueria and the other central markets, but then realized it was a little foolish to go so far out of our way just for markets when there were so many other cities we hadn't seen.

We took a red eye from Miami to Madrid, which is the ideal way for us to kick things off. The kids are all at an age where they sleep through the night, and being on an airplane doesn't seem to get in the way of that. It also allows me to work the night before we leave and get some sleep during the day. When I'm taking five weeks off I want to work as much as I can up until we leave. The downside is that I don't sleep on planes at all, except for those rare occasions when I can get a whole row to lay down in. I'm used to functioning on little sleep, especially once the adrenalin of beginning a new trip kicks in, so I'm more than willing to suffer that blow in order to hit the ground running when we arrive.

One adjustment that I'd made on this itinerary was giving ourselves a major attraction to anticipate at the very end of the trip. One minor problem we'd had before was that we were only seeing lesser cities and sights in the last few days, which made it difficult to keep the energy going. On this trip we were saving the delights of Madrid for the very end. However, I did time our arrival for Saturday morning so that we could enjoy one of Madrid's many markets before setting off on the road. Our choice was Mercado de la Paz, whose location northeast of the center would facilitate a quick stop before our eastward journey to Cuenca. The logistics didn't turn out as simple as we hoped, thanks to the narrow streets and congested traffic in the busy neighborhood of Salamanca. Once we were finally able to park and made our way back to the market, we instantly recognized it as one we had already visited on our last trip to Madrid four years previously. That wasn't much of a problem though as it was a good market with plenty of food options. It wasn't as large as some other municipal markets but there was little repetition which meant all the major types of food were represented. The quality and presentation were very appetizing as well. For lunch we settled on a small seafood restaurant where the highlight was a casserole of snails in a rich brown broth. It was the type of dish one would be unlikely to find at even the most authentic Spanish restaurant in the US and it made us feel like we had truly arrived in another world.

I had been a little worried about driving on so little sleep, but as we hit the highway I was feeling highly energized. I had been in Cuenca seventeen years previously, but my memories were hazy and I was looking forward to becoming reacquainted with this unique town. The best part was that we would arrive in the afternoon and still have the whole evening to explore, assuming we could continue fighting off the fatigue. Before long we found ourselves in the fairly nondescript lower part of Cuenca. Like many other central Spanish cities such as Toledo, Cuenca has a disorienting three dimensional layout that is difficult to navigate even with GPS. The old city is located at the top of a narrow ridge between the twin gorges of the Júcar and Huécar rivers. We had some difficulty locating our Airbnb, but eventually found it on a rather drab block about halfway up to the ridge. The apartment itself was fairly dreary as well, located just below the ground level with minimal interior decor and just a single window in the living room. Since we were staying just one night, we had picked the Airbnb for cheapness and convenience, and we were getting pretty much exactly what we paid for.

Once we were settled it was only late afternoon, and there was no question that our best option was to head directly to the old city. One important thing to understand about traveling in Spain in the summer is how late the sunsets are. Despite being at the same longitude as Ireland and England, Spain is on Central European Time rather than Greenwich Mean Time. This was a policy instituted by the dictator Franco during World War II, in order to synchronize with his allies in Nazi Germany. In recent years there's been a movement to move Spain back to Greenwich Mean Time but it's uncertain if that will ever take place. When Spain's discordant time zone is combined with daylight savings time, the result is that sunset doesn't take place until about ten PM. Many people believe the late sunsets are part of the reason for the shift of Spanish meals and nightlife to the later hours. Regardless, when traveling in Spain in the summer it's best to do most sightseeing in the afternoon and early evening when the shops have reopened after siesta and the sun isn't as strong. Expect to have a late dinner and don't plan on being in bed before eleven. It's a dramatic difference from neighboring France where the emphasis is always getting to sleep early, waking up early, and being at the market before nine.

Cuenca's old city is a no go for cars without special authorization, but there's a good-sized parking garage just below the medieval Torre de Mangana. The clock tower, which was renovated in the 20th century, isn't open to the public and the area around it is unsightly compared to the rest of the old city. However, the square around the tower offers an amazing vantage point over the lower town, the Río Júcar, and the surrounding countryside.

Cuenca's Plaza Mayor is dominated by the imposing Gothic facade of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace and Saint Julian. At the southern end of the plaza is the town hall which straddles the main road, permitting cars to enter through an archway built into the aqueduct-like building. The plaza is a focal point of the old town, lined with cafes and upscale boutiques.

It's just a short walk from Plaza Mayor to Cuenca's most famous attraction, the Huécar gorge and the unique multistory houses that are built into the limestone walls of the gorge. There used to be many more of these casas colgadas (hanging houses), but only three remain which are now occupied by a museum of abstract art. The houses and their beautiful wooden balconies can be viewed from the cobblestone path that slopes downward to the San Pablo Bridge, or from the bridge itself.

The San Pablo Bridge is an amazing structure that traverses the Huécar gorge to the enormous Parador de Cuenca, a former convent. The current steel and wood bridge was built at the beginning of the 20th century to replace the 16th century bridge which had collapsed. The bridge itself is beautiful yet seems somewhat precarious with uncomfortably wide gaps in the cross-hatched sidewalls. The kids insisted on joining me as I walked across the bridge but I refused to let go of them for more than a few seconds, which limited my attempts at photography.

We were probably the first people in the whole town to sit down for dinner, which proved to be a disappointing meal although the al fresco location in a quiet little plaza was enjoyable.

There was still plenty of light once we'd finished dinner, so we decided to continue on the main street past the cathedral and see what we encountered. There were plenty of little nooks and crannies of the old town to explore, as the sun began to go down and the outdoor restaurants began to fill with customers.

We eventually found ourselves in front of one of the most highly rated restaurants in Cuenca, and I allowed Mei Ling to persuade me to take us all inside for our second dinner of the night. I can't say the second meal was spectacular, although it was better than the first and left us feeling more satisfied with our culinary experience in Cuenca. The kids were well-behaved which was a relief. Once we left the restaurant the dusk was setting in for real and we made our way back to the car through the eerie glow of the illuminated old buildings.

I was very pleased with myself for having pushed through fatigue to a normal sleeping time. Hopefully I would find myself acclimated to the new time zone immediately. I haven't really suffered jet lag for many years anyway, since I'm so accustomed to working shifts at all hours of the day and night. Once we arrived back at the Airbnb, I was grateful for the lack of sunlight that I had found depressing at first. There was no air conditioning and the warmth and stuffiness of the apartment were barely tolerable as it was. We fell asleep immediately, but in the middle of the night I woke up to the sound of the older kids whispering and scuffling in the lower bunk beneath me. I snarled at them to go back to sleep but soon realized it was futile, so I took them out to the living room and dropped them in front of the TV, then crawled back to my upper bunk and fell back to sleep. In the morning I was the first one awake and found them sprawled out on the living room floor fast asleep again. For those who have traveled with kids, this was a fairly merciful experience with their jet lag. We let them crash until the bags were in the car and then bundled them into their car seats. Our long evening in Cuenca had left us with nothing else to see in town, which was great because there was so much on the road ahead of us.

Our only other destination in the Cuenca area was the Ciudad Encantada, or Enchanted City. This fancifully-named park contains numerous unusual rock formations sculpted by the action of weather and flowing water over millennia. A common formation is a mushroom-like shape created by erosion of the base of the rock to a narrow column that seems barely strong enough to support the huge mass above it. Of course, all the formations whose columns actually did get too thin crumbled and disappeared, leaving only the ones we can see today. There were also narrow canyons, archways, and caves to explore and marvel at. It was a good way to experience some nature and sunlight on a trip that would mostly be dedicated to cities and markets.

I had hoped to find a good place for lunch outside of Cuenca, but ultimately we had to drive all the way back into the new town to find a decent restaurant that was open on Sunday. We had an excellent selection of seafood tapas, so the loss of time proved worthwhile. The drive out of the Serranía de Cuenca mountains was filled with scenic overlooks. I pulled over at one stop while everyone else in the car was sleeping just to admire a beautiful display of pottery from a local vendor. The parking lot was packed with people embarking on a hike to what must have been an amazing viewpoint, but I had enough experience traveling with my family to let sleeping dogs lie.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:38 Archived in Spain Tagged cuenca Comments (0)

North from NYC: The Berkshires and New York City

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We were still woozy from our huge lunch at Montréal's Atwater Market when we retrieved Mei Ling's mother from the motel in Plattsburgh. She seemed to have weathered three days in solitary none the worse for wear. Soon afterwards, we stopped at Ausable Chasm for a quick look at the canyon and the waterfall. There's plenty of trails and hikes available with an option for rafting or tubing at the bottom, but it wasn't an option with young kids.

We didn't stop again until we reached Great Barrington, in the Berkshires area of Western Massachusetts. We were more interested in the Lenox area to the north, but during my search for an Airbnb I came across a place that I couldn't resist. It was a genuine log cabin with a second-story deck and a stone fireplace. Despite its rustic appearance, it was very modern and comfortable on the inside and everyone loved it.

Great Barrington didn't feel as exclusive as I expected from the Berkshires, perhaps because it was a little to the south of the most affluent areas of Lenox and Stockbridge. The town itself was tiny with most of the restaurants being clustered in a single area near the main road. We took the two older kids to Cafe Adam, the best upscale restaurant in the area, and had an excellent dinner at the only table on the front patio.

The next morning we drove to Lenox and just beat the rush at a very popular brunch restaurant. We checked out a local toy store and a couple of boutiques but we were eager to get on to the day's main event and then proceed to our favorite city in the world, NYC.

The most well-known sight in Lenox is The Mount, the former residence of the turn-of-the-century American novelist Edith Wharton. Wharton helped to design and oversaw construction of the grand mansion herself, and it was where she completed most of the works she is best known for. This summer, the estate was hosting a sculpture exhibition which added a surreal quality to the thickly-wooded grounds.

The gardens were gorgeous and very well-maintained, rivaling some of the most beautiful estates in Europe. The best part was that I didn't have to watch the kids' every move to be sure they weren't about to destroy some precious artifact.

The same couldn't be said about the mansion itself. We eschewed the tour and ushered our manic brood through the elegant home as quickly as we could before enjoying drinks and sorbet at the cafe on the terrace. I ordered a glass of wine for Mei Ling and our waitress told us we were welcome to drink the rest of the bottle, which was still half full. We must have looked like we needed it.

Driving back through Lenox on our way to the main road, we encountered a small girl with a lemonade stand at the curb in front of her house. It was too small town America to ignore, so we pulled over and I bought a Dixie cup of lemonade for the rather obscene price of five dollars. I was also offered the opportunity to buy one of her tiny Play-Doh versions of vegetables for a dollar, which I felt too guilty to refuse. The lemonade was actually an artificially-sweetened drink mix which I poured out discreetly once I got back to the driver's side of the car, and one of the kids immediately rolled the Play-Doh into a pea which was more recognizable as a vegetable than what the little girl had given me. During the whole interaction, there was no sign whatsoever of any parent despite the fact that the girl couldn't have been more than seven and had her stand right at the curb. I couldn't imagine leaving Cleo out on her own in that kind of situation, even in an upscale area, where anyone could drive by in a minivan and snatch her away in a second. Different parenting styles, I suppose, or maybe I'm just paranoid.

For a few years, Airbnb was an amazing deal in NYC given the insane price of hotels. However, it seems that hosts have now wised up and the price of accommodation has risen to meet demand. Increasing restrictions from landlords and condo boards has also probably chilled the supply. We had hoped to stay in Midtown but the prices for two bedroom apartments were crazy, so we settled on East Harlem instead. When I was growing up in New York City in the 80's this was a pretty bad area, but like many other places it's been gentrified and is now a relatively safe, colorful, and diverse neighborhood. The main negative was the distance from downtown Manhattan, but we were planning to spend most of our time in Midtown and Queens anyway. Once we arrived, I realized parking was going to be a major issue so we made a spur of the moment decision to return the minivan early. Aside from the parking concerns, the La Guardia auto rental agencies are separated from the airport itself by two shuttles which totally negates the convenience of returning the car at the airport. We decided to drive to our favorite place to eat in NYC, the food court at New World Mall, before returning the car. There we met up with my college roommate George and his wife and enjoyed a huge and delicious selection of dishes from the most appetizing stalls.

The car dropoff was an exhausting experience, mainly because the first Uber driver we called came and left without us. We were waiting inside the agency office and he called us from outside the gate. We asked him to come inside the lot and pick us up at the office but instead he took off and collected a no-show payment. In order to prevent the next guy from doing the same thing, we had to walk out to the gate and sit on the sidewalk until he showed up. Of course, the second Uber driver had trouble locating the agency and I watched him circle the area three or four times before I was finally able to flag him down. The car-free portion of our trip wasn't beginning auspiciously. However, it was good to get to our Airbnb and walk straight in without having to hunt for a parking place.

In the morning, we split into two groups. Mei Ling, her Mom and Spenser went to meet up with some of her old work friends and I took Cleo and Ian to the American Museum of Natural History. I hadn't been there since my own childhood, and I had eagerly anticipated taking my own kids there and reacquainting myself with old memories of field trips and scavenger hunts. In retrospect, I may have rushed it because I think the kids only got about a quarter of what I hoped they would out of the visit. It didn't help that the museum was absolutely packed despite it being a Monday morning, probably because it was early in the summer vacation season. They spent more time chasing each other around and disappearing into the crowds than they did perusing the exhibitions, although they did seem to enjoy the more interactive exhibits.

We walked back to the East Side through Central Park, but it had become quite hot outside while we were in the museum and the Belvedere Castle turned out to be closed for renovations. I noticed an amazing skyscraper to the south of the park that was the only building visible over the treeline. It turned out to be 432 Park Ave, which had been completed in 2015 and was now the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere. I don't think that when I was a kid I could have imagined that one day it would be possible to live in an apartment where you could look down on the top of the Empire State Building. The building's relative skinniness and the lack to buildings of similar size around it make it seem even taller. The ultramodern gridlike design gives the skyscraper a surreal beauty that has made it an instant NYC landmark.

The kids were overheated and irritable after the walk through the park, so I decided to cab it back to the Airbnb and let them rest until it was time to head downtown for the evening. We had timed our visit to coincide with the wedding of one of Mei Ling's co-workers, and the reception was being held in Chinatown. We took the subway all the way downtown and then waited in the crowded ballroom about two hours before the actual reception started. The kids had some fun up on the stage, but by the time things were over the stores outside had all closed and we weren't able to enjoy Chinatown at all.

The next day we spent the morning in Greenwich Village, one of the few downtown neighborhoods I'd never taken Mei Ling. We had an enjoyable morning strolling around before we ended up at Washington Square Park. The park had undergone an impressive facelift since the last time I'd visited, which must have been more than ten years ago. The hard dirt and concrete were mostly gone, replaced by lawns and a pleasantly-contoured children's playground. Young people and families were sprawled around the grass, seemingly having forgiven the park for its recent history as a haven for vagrants and drug addicts.

For our last evening in New York City and the finale of the road trip, we'd bought tickets to the Spongebob SquarePants musical on Broadway. It seemed like a great way to introduce the kids to live theater and the reviews were great. I hadn't seen a Broadway show since I was a kid, and it would be the first time for Mei Ling. Once we were inside, what struck me immediately was how many adults were there unaccompanied by children. Of course, there were more kids than one might expect at the usual Broadway show but nowhere near as many as I anticipated. I guess nostalgia is a powerful motivator, but I would never have chosen to go to a musical based on a kids' TV show if I wasn't bringing my children. The show came off pretty well, thanks to the talent and enthusiasm of the actors. One of the best decisions the creators made was not having the actors hide themselves in elaborate and bulky animal costumes, but rather have clothing items and a hairstyle that evoked their characters. Mr. Krabs wore oversize boxing gloves that really looked like claws, Squidward had pants with an extra set of legs, and SpongeBob himself just wore suspenders with pants that were too short and revealed his striped socks. On the other hand, the musical pieces were a little disappointing without any numbers as memorable as The Campfire Song or The Best Day Ever. After the show, we spilled out onto Broadway which is truly an amazing and overwhelming sight at night.

There was too much energy in the air for us to just call it a night, so we took an hour to wander around Times Square and then a little bit of Midtown, including Rockefeller Center. We tried the obligatory pushcart sausages and pretzels, and marveled at the enormous buildings and elaborate decorative displays that were ubiquitous in the area. As much as I love the ethnic and artistic culture of Downtown, it's really Midtown that embodies the magic and majesty of New York City the best.

In the morning we had one last view of 432 Park Avenue from across the river in Queens on our way to the airport. Mei Ling was speculating that if we decided to retire in New York City we might one day live in that building, but a quick look online revealed that the cheapest studio apartment was four million. It was a healthy reminder that even though travel makes us feel like Masters of the Universe, we're just little fish in a place like NYC. On the positive side, we only had to face a three hour flight back home to Miami. Even if NYC isn't affordable for us right now, it's good to know we can come back as often as we want.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:24 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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