Mother and Daughter’s first day on the Camino Santiago

My daughter Elizabeth and I are early risers, so getting up before dawn would not be a hardship for us while walking the Camino Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain.   Our plan was to leave by 5:45 am in an attempt to avoid the brutal heat and humidity of the day.

We left our much-loved hotel in Astorga in complete darkness, turned on our headlamps and headed out to find the way.  We quickly saw other pilgrims and just followed along.  We were still in Astorga when we saw our first restaurant/bar with the lights on.   We timidly entered the establishment with so many other pilgrims but feeling like outsiders. We ordered our standard Camino breakfast of café con leche, croissants, and fresh squeezed orange juice.   All the backpacks and walking sticks rested against a wall while pilgrims stood at the bar eager to eat and get back on the trail.   The server was neither friendly nor rude he just brought the food, collected the money and was on to the next customer who was most assuredly another pilgrim.

I was extremely nervous at this early hour that we would lag behind the other pilgrims that were out and about.  Would we get lost, die of heat exhaustion, be attacked by wild dogs, robbed in the forest areas and how the hell do I call the police in Spain??  So many questions, but so much excitement and pure joy that I was walking the Camino Santiago.

We quickly departed the café and joined the hundreds of others walking single and double file on the way.  Quickly people were passing us but they always said “Buen Camino” as they did.  At first, I felt foolish responding with “Buen Camino”, like I was a fake pilgrim or a fraud.  This was our first day and others had been walking for weeks but after an hour or two, it became second nature for both me and my teenager.

As we walked out of Astorga, over several highway overpasses we observed the sun rising in the east.   I knew the heat and humidity would soon prevail and I dreaded it.  Sure enough, about an hour later I started sweating and didn’t stop until I was on the plane heading home from Spain four weeks later.

After about 5 miles we found our groove and were thoroughly enjoying this experience.   We spoke to fellow walkers from all over Europe and they all seemed pleased that my child was walking.  One Italian man was about 75 ish and told us he had been walking for over a month and the entire time we walked with him, he serenaded us with beautiful songs in his native tongue.  The sound of people walking with their heavy hiking shoes, hiking poles clicking on the ground, and quiet conversations quickly became the norm.

Each day we walked about 15 miles and we were constantly hungry and thirsty so we stopped a lot, including 2 times for breakfast, a snack and then a long leisurely lunch.  The best part of stopping was that all the pilgrims walking with you at different sections all seemed to stop and linger at the same cafes so you could reconnect.

It started raining and Elizabeth was thrilled to use her new rain poncho but not me. I knew the plastic was going to trap in more heat and it did.  We quietly walked the trail and finally approached the very small town of El Ganso (translates to the goose) and decided to dry off and have lunch.  El Ganso is home to the infamous Cowboy Bar, but we choose the no-name restaurant across the road to chow down on freshly prepared Spanish omelets and bananas. We were thrilled because there was a sign on the wall that said “240 kilometers” to Santiago so we were making progress.

We then got back on the Camino and immediately noticed the villages were smaller, some only appear to have a couple of houses and our trail went right by their front doors.  I loved wandering through these tiny towns where some of the villagers sold drinks and walking sticks from their front doors or windows.  Elizabeth decided to purchase a walking stick and paid about 5 euros for a very nice one. It was made of wood and had Camino Santiago carved into its side.  We were advised that we needed a walking stick because of the steep hills but up to this point we had not really seen any hills, but would shortly.

That afternoon the crowd of pilgrims had thinned out and for the first time, I was unable to see pilgrims in front or behind us. This was my concern prior to arriving in Spain, hiking through the woods and not know who was lurking behind those trees.  My motto was ‘there is safety in numbers’ and I had no intention of letting Elizabeth get victimized.

So just prior to entering our first forest we stopped and waited for 15 minutes until other pilgrims approached and we joined their pack.  Many times, the groups you are walking with spoke no English, but it didn’t matter because we all had the same goal, to get to the Cathedral in Santiago.   Once we entered the exquisite, old growth trees forest and started walking on the simple dirt trail I somehow knew we would be safe.  The forests turned out to be my favorite places on the Camino, so peaceful and calm,  a perfect opportunity for reflective moments.

At some point, we started seeing wooden twigs made into crosses that were placed in the barbed wire fences.  There were literally hundreds of these crosses in this section of the Camino and they reinforced the fact that so many pilgrims came before us.   All the anxiety and fear were gone and now all I care about was walking towards Santiago.  We would be safe and succeed on this difficult journey and we knew it.

Elizabeth has only 2 vivid memories or our first day;  all the crosses on the barbed wire fence and how happy she felt when she first observed the town where we would rest for the night in the distance.  It took us another hour and a half to reach Rabanel, but I agree it was a great feeling when it first appears on the horizon.

After 8 or 9 hours of walking, we reached Rabanel, which is located straight up a long hill and although completely exhausted and depleted from the oppressive heat, I don’t remember being happier in a long time.

Buen Camino

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Sun Rise over the Camino
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Walking out of Astorga
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240 Km to go from el Ganso
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Hot & Exhausted on Camino
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Elizabeth’s New Walking Stick
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Hundreds of Crosses on Barbed Wire

Guadi Palace, Grand Cathedral and the Camino Santiago de Compestela in Astorga, Spain.

We arrived at the deserted Astorga, Spain train station around noon, during a heat wave so hot and uncomfortable that it was widely referred to in Europe as ‘Lucifer’.  Carrying all our worldly possessions on our back, we were full of excitement to start our pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago the next morning.

Although everyone told me I wouldn’t get lost on the Camino I was soon skeptical.  After exiting the train station, I really did not know how to get to our hotel, just that it was a block or two from the Camino and the Cathedral.   Somehow, I thought I would just know how to get there but this was not the case.

Since I didn’t want my 12-year old to know I was feeling disoriented and had no idea where the Camino was actually situated, I needed to get my act together.   Luckily, I did have cell service and was able to google and find directions that were only 5 minutes away.  But as we trudged up the steep road I then realized the Google estimate was for driving not walking.    For the next 2 plus weeks, the only directions or times I would need from google would be the walking instructions.

The Camino’s path is marked with yellow arrows and scallop shells all directing you towards Santiago.  We started seeing the arrows and we finally found our hotel across from the Cathedral and right off of the Camino.

Astorga is a beautiful town with lots to see and do. Hotel Spa Cuidad de Astorga was chosen as our hotel because it had a pool and spa.  I wanted my child to enjoy her time here in Spain, thus the pool, but I really needed to recover from the jet lag, so the steam and sauna were for me.  The hotel was quirky, modern, centrally located, and the staff was extremely helpful.  They are used to pilgrims and their needs, and it shows.    Our room was air conditioned but little did I know that would be one of the last air conditioned anything I would see for a couple of weeks.

We ditched our backpacks and went downstairs to the Spa.  We had the entire place to ourselves as there wasn’t even an attendant there and thoroughly enjoyed the pool, hot tub, sauna, steam and Turkish baths.   They have plush towels and drinks set out for those using the facilities.   Although it is in the hotel’s basement, it had large windows and skylights, so beautiful light streamed in and it never felt closed-in nor claustrophobic.

We then set out to obtain our first pilgrim passport stamp in Astorga from the nearest albergue.  An albergue is an inexpensive place where pilgrims sleep while on pilgrimage in Spain, that is owned by the local government or the Catholic Church.   Since most albergues are co-ed I decided that it was best that my child and I stay in private rooms or moderately priced hotels along the way.

The pilgrim’s passport inscribed with your name is available through organizations such as American Pilgrims on the Camino ( APOC).  Just like an official travel passport receives stamps from different countries, this passport receives a unique stamp from the businesses along the Camino.  This passport entitles pilgrims to pilgrim’s meals and lodging at a substantially discounted rate along the way.  Once you complete the Camino, the passport will be your proof at the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago that you walked the required stages of the Camino. After examining your passport, with its many different stamps and dates, the Pilgrim’s Reception officials will issue you a Compostela if you have completed the necessary requirements.

Here is a link to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office:

https://oficinadelperegrino.com/en/

We then walked to the Albergue de Peregrinos San Javier to have our passport stamped.   Once inside we realized how hot these albergues can be.  There were no apparent fans and the place was stifling.   We saw several pilgrims lying on their cots totally exhausted from the long day’s hike.  Alarmed is an understatement of how I felt at that moment.  What was I doing bringing my 12-year-old to Spain alone to walk 270 kilometers during the summer?  Was I crazy?  I would soon find out.

We then visited magnificent Astorga Cathedral, which began construction in the 15th century but not completed until the 18th.  Adjacent to the Cathedral is the Episcopal Palace a beautiful castle designed by the incomparable architect  Antonin Gaudi at the turn of the 20th century and which houses a museum devoted to pilgrims.  This town, with a population of only 11, 000, has both a palace, a cathedral and the Camino trail running through the town center.  Amazing sightseeing opportunities everywhere in this village.

Within blocks of the Cathedral are plenty of shops serving pilgrims needs such as hiking gear, scallop shells and sun hats. After some last-minute shopping, we remained in the plaza just pilgrim watching.    I was just so jealous of their look, which was part strength and confidence, and part shabby and dusty.   They appeared exhausted to me and I could not wait for the next morning to become part of this group; those that were willing to give up their comfortable lives back home to walk across NW Spain.

Our plan for the following day was to rise before dawn to start out at 5:30 am when it was still reasonably cool and to begin our Camino.

Buen Camino.

 

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Cathedral in Astorga, Spain
The Astorga Cathedral
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In front of the Albergue in Astorga, Spain
Astorga Hotel
Wonderful Spa in Astorga, Spain
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Follow the scallop shells

 

 

How to use Mochilas on the Camino Santiago de Compestela

 

Mochilas on the Camino

In June of 2017, my 12-year-old daughter and I set out to walk the last 283 kilometers of the Camino Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage in NW Spain.

After spending several months’ salary at REI on lightweight gear, hiking shoes and clothing we were all set to begin this once in a lifetime hiking trip.   However, once we arrived in Leon, Spain we quickly realized how hot and humid it is in the NW of Spain. The summer of 2017 was so hot in Spain that the heatwave was dubbed “Lucifer.   Assuming we might be in over our heads, the hotel receptionist suggested that we ship our backpacks to the next day’s destination for a few days until the heat wave subsided and that is what we did.

On the Camino Santiago, many folks have their backpacks, also known as rucksacks in Europe, shipped each day to their next location.  It is very economical to use these services which only costs about 3 to 7 euros per bag and are extremely reliable.  Since all your worldly travel items are in your backpack, it is critical that once you arrive at your next location your stuff arrives with all its contents intact and on time.

The Spanish people call the backpack or luggage transport service ‘mochila‘ and the albergue, Refugio and hotel reception areas all offer the service.  Once a pilgrim arrives at their destination for the night they need to request a mochila envelope, the clerk will then make the arrangements with the transport company for you or you can call yourself.  I was apprehensive about calling the service but quickly learned the person answering speaks passable English and the process is very simple.  The hardest part of using this valuable service is figuring out where you will stay the next night.  So, if you tell them you will be staying in a village 25 kilometers away but then you can’t walk that far your bag, unfortunately, will be at the village 25 kilometers away.   Luckily after 2 or 3 days on the Camino, you will know how many kilometers you are capable of walking to each day. We walked about 24 kilometers each day and some days were much harder than others.

There are different transport companies in different stages of the way, but the drivers all seem to know each other and once you pass through their region of Spain they pass you off to the next region’s transport company along the way.

To use the service, you will get a small envelope which asks for some basic info like name, contact info, and lodging today and where you want your bag dropped off the next day.  When you are departing your lodging in the am just attached the completed envelope with a pin or rubber band to your backpack, insert the cash and leave the backpack in the lobby with all the other backpacks.  On really hot days we saw upwards of 20 packs in the lobby.  When you retrieve your backpack later that afternoon/night at the new town there will be a blank envelope attached to the previously used one..    Once we did not know exactly where we were staying but did know which town we would be walking to,  so the transport representative told me to pick up my bag at a certain bar in the village of Palas de Rey, and sure enough when we entered the town around 3pm, we found the bar and our back pack was near the bar.  Easy Peasie.

 

REI and OSPREY backpacks and Pilgrims Passports
Backpacks and Pilgrims Passports
Back pack transport envelope for Mochila
Mochila Envelope

 

Not carrying a back pack up long, steep hills and treacherous descents back down on the Camino was wonderful.  We simply carried a day pack with water and other essentials. After about 5 days of walking we started carrying our own packs but it was nice to know we had options.

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Camino Santiago de Compestela with soon-to-be teenager.

This is a very short blog about my Camino experience for my travel agency, Sailor’s Delight Travel. I am trying to write a more comprehensive article about my Camino but haven’t had the time.

In June of 2017, my 12-year old daughter and I threw on our Osprey Backpacks and headed to Astorga Spain to walk the last 283 kilometers of the Camino Santiago de Compostela.

Camino is Spanish for path or trail and el Camino de Santiago has been a globally popular pilgrimage route following the death of St. James the Apostle in the 9th century.  Legend says that the remains of Jesus’ apostle St.James lie inside the Cathedral of Santiago and Christian pilgrims throughout the globe follow this way to the Cathedral in penance for their sins. Today it is both a religious and nonreligious experience for young and old alike.

I have been researching this pilgrimage for about 3 years ever since I watched and cried through the movie “The Way” starring Martin Sheen.  As a young widow, I knew immediately that I wanted to do this pilgrimage and somehow convinced my child that this would be an excellent family vacation. To be honest she loved the adventure and made some great friends along the way.  As long as she can group chat her friends back in the States she is happy.



On the Way


There are various Caminos to walk and they all end in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  Most first time Pilgrims, start on the  Camino Frances.  There are many other routes including Camino Portugues,  Camino Primivito, Via de la Plata and Via Francigena.  

Almost to Santiago


Farm Animals are my friends

We obtained our Pilgrim Passport from the American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC)  Chapter.  These passports are used by pilgrims for admission to pilgrim housing and restaurants along the way. We flew to Madrid,  took the RENFE train to Leon and spent a few days visiting the historical sites in the area before starting our pilgrimage.

I did have a major ‘parental fail’ moment in Leon, Spain.  We were in an outside cafe where the server spoke only trace amounts of English and my daughter ordered a lemonade.  My daughter is only 12 but could pass for 16, and the waiter asked her if she wanted a ‘lemonade’?  When she received the drink she groaned and said she hated it, which is pretty common for a tween.  I told her she is drinking every drop of it because it cost money.  She took a few more tiny sips and refused to drink anymore. I then took a sip and realized the drink was some type of Sangria wine. Ooopppssss.  Sorry child of mine. 

 

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Follow the arrows and shells to Santiago


The next morning, we took a local train to Astorga and began our walk.  Since it was June and extremely hot out we were only able to walk about 15 miles a day.   Astorga was a starting point and probably will be next year when we repeat the pilgrimage because it is such an incredible city for pilgrims to enjoy.

After 16 wonderful but strenuous days walking through NW Spain through villages, forests, mountain ranges and the countryside we joyfully reached Santiago, Spain and received our Compestela at the Pilgrims Office.  This trip was one of the best things I have ever done for myself and I plan to do it again next year.

 

Santiago

 

Sailor’s Delight is my travel agency and I am proud of the work I do  If you should want to walk the Camino and need help with your arrangements, including travel insurance, baggage transfers, flights, hotels or rail please consider Sailor’s Delight.  If you don’t need our help but still have questions, please give me a call as I would be glad to help you.

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Vatican City and Rome with family in two days.

 

We arrived in Rome from Civitavecchia after a 7-day Greek cruise.  The port town is over an hour from Rome and our cruise line offered transfers and a 4-hour tour of the Eternal City so we signed up.  Since we were in Italy in July, the one thing that was of the utmost importance to me was that the bus was air-conditioned.  Nothing else really mattered.
The first stop on this Sunday morning was the Vatican. I have seen 3 Popes conduct Mass in the USA but have never been to the Vatican so I was super excited.
Security to get into Stato della Citta del Vaticano aka Vatican City was strict.  You must walk through 2 separate magnetometer checkpoints and armed military are everywhere.
Luckily, we arrived early and we had the massive Piazza San Pietro to ourselves.    We were warned about pickpockets in advance so we were extra vigilant.  Papal Mass was scheduled for noon but we weren’t going to be there at that time which was disappointing.
We then were enthralled at the St. Peter’s Basilica and I have never seen a more beautiful church in my life. It is not only the center of the Catholic Religion but it is also renowned for his Renaissance and Baroque architecture.   Everywhere you looked and walked you would see genuine masterpieces.  It actually feels holy.  I wandered around and never wanted the hour to end and we were fortunate to witness a Baptism in one of the side chapels.
Here are some photos of the Vatican and the Basilica:
Holy Sea
St. Peter’s Basilica

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I really wanted to see the Sistine Chapel and I should have known this fact but it is not part of the Basilica but a separate venue and it was closed during our visit. Vatican City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and should not be missed.
Time for espresso and something sweet.
Did I mention that it’s hot in Rome during noon time in July?   Well, it is.   Our motor-coach then circled the area around the Colosseum when I first realized the how enormous the amphitheater is.   If you don’t like crowds be forewarned there are tourists and people everywhere trying to sell you bottled water/ souvenirs prior to entering the historical site.  Our guide told us that in ancient times the Emperor financed and provided the Colosseum for his people as an entertainment venue.  The events around 80 AD were a big deal with free food, wine and entertainment involving gladiators, criminals, and animals, such as lions.  The details were ghastly.   Our guide explained that the noon events were sparsely attended because of the heat and the most gruesome because condemned prisoners were thrown to the hungry animals.    Later in the day, the place was packed with onlookers enjoying the festive atmosphere while famous gladiators dueled animals.   Some of the beasts had it almost as hard as the condemned prisoners because they were kept in a dark cellar and not feed for days at a time.
Although this is a must-see for any tourist I did not enjoy the Colosseum.  First off the security is very tight outside the venue, but once inside you will quickly notice that the bars on the windows, which prevented gladiators from escaping,  might prevent you from escaping if an emergency should occur.     It was just too hot and crowded for me and the history of the executions made my stomach turn.  My opinion doesn’t matter on this subject because everyone else seemed to enjoy this site very much.
Rome
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While in Rome we stayed at the lovely 3-star Albergo Cesari, which first opened in 1787, right in the center of the Eternal City.   It is family owned and operated and the staff could not have been more welcoming.    We enjoyed the 5th-floor outdoor rooftop breakfast buffet overlooking the city and it is within a 5-minute walk to the Trevi Fountain and the Parthenon.  This hotel might be older but it has some much-appreciated features such as room-silencing shutters, air conditioning, several English language television stations and a caring staff.  I highly recommend this lodging option.
We walked over to the Trevi Fountains but couldn’t get close because of the crowds.  So we tossed a coin, snapped a pic and toasted la dolce vita.
We spent the next day strolling around Rome.  We particularly liked the Spanish Steps and its surrounding area.  The 200-year-old, 138 steps appear to made of marble and are much wider than I imagined so there’s plenty of space to people watch.   After you ascend the steps your view of Rome is breathtaking.    A few blocks behind the Spanish Steps is the Villa Borghese Park.  This place was a perfect destination for a hot Roman afternoon.  It is full of tree line paths where you can stroll, rent 2-person bikes or paddleboats for its lake.   If you like the fresh air you’re going to want to visit this park.   One of the coolest parts of the park is all along the pathways there are marble busts of famous men from history.  We searched some 30 busts and could only find one bust of a female historical figure and that was the Blessed Virgin Mary.  There must be more ladies’ statues but we never saw any more.  I really enjoyed spending time in this park.

And just like that our trip to Rome was over.  I will miss the history lessons on every block, the pasta, and the people watching.
Arrivederci, Friends!

Advice for travel with kids to the Medieval town of Segovia, Spain

2 Nights in Segovia, Spain

While visiting Madrid’s wonderful Christmas Markets my daughter and I decided to spend a couple of days exploring Segovia.   The high-speed AVE train takes about 35 minutes and costs around 10 euros.  We got on the train at the downtown Madrid’s Chamartin train station which is an extremely busy city rail station and exited the train in Segovia’s AVE station which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, all you see is farmlands surrounded by snow-capped mountains.  The station is about 4km outside the city and there are plenty of taxis waiting outside to take passengers into Segovia.

Segovia is a walled medieval town guarded by ramparts that were built-in the 11th century.  Its rich and complex history ensure it is a very popular destination for engineers,  historians, religious folks and tourist in central Spain.

We had reservations at the Hotel Candido in Segovia because it had both an indoor pool and a Turkish Haman.    The lobby and common areas were festively but tastefully decorated for Christmas and our room was luxurious and richly draped with exquisite textiles and Spanish furnishings. The bathroom was enormous with a steam shower, separate whirlpool tub and the largest collection of high-end amenities that I’ve ever seen.    Walking the halls of the hotel we were impressed with the exquisite carpeting, wall hangings, and stain glass ceilings.  The Candido has an expensive, old world charm with photos of the King and Queen of Spain and other luminaries who have stayed there proudly displayed on its walls.

The Candido’s spa is exceptional.  We loved every minute we spent in the Turkish bath or Hamann,  the fiery Finish sauna,  hazy steam room and tranquil indoor pool with a delightful waterfall faucet and separate whirlpool.  Since Segovia is in Europe swim caps are pretty much mandatory, so pack your own or purchase in the Spa.   The hotel is about a mile away from the main tourist area inside the Old City but we did not mind as it is easily walkable downhill to the Plaza Major and uphill on the return.

Most of the top sites of Segovia are within the Old City section of town.  To get to the Old City you must enter through the impressive Roman Aqueduct bridge.  About 2000 years ago Roman Emperors had the Aquaducts built to bring water from the Frio River to the Segovia citizens and is still in use today.   In 1985 the structures were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.    This water conveyance method is widely considered to be an example of perfect engineering because the massive Aqueduct was built using the opus quandratum method, which included using over 20, 000 large stone blocks perfectly balanced on themselves but not affixed with cement or mortar.  We kept wondering how the arches and bridge did not collapse with no cement to hold the granite together. We climbed to the top of the bridge and had an inspiring view of the mountains and countryside.

After obligatory photos in front of the Aquaducts, you then to climb a hill to enter the Old City where most of the major historical sites are located.  The streets are lined with cafes, confectionery stores and small stalls selling medieval era toys, such as swords and archery bows, local cuisine and religious items.  Another must-have while in Segovia is a churro or two.   A churro is defined as a strip of fried dough dusted with cinnamon or sugar but in Spain, they have mastered the culinary delight by adding a cup of hot chocolate pudding to dip the dough in.  Deliciouso.

At the top of the hill, you enter the beautiful Plaza Mayor and you will immediately see The Cathedral. The Cathedral is a 15th-century masterpiece that houses over 15 chapels. The cloisters alone are worth the visit but every inch of the holy place, including the altar, and choir stall contains significant works of art.

We really enjoyed our visit to the Alcazar which reminded us of a fairy-tale castle and it’s only a few blocks from Plaza Major.  The Alcazar dates back to the 12 century and was the home of King Alfonso VIII in the 13th century.  It has everything a medieval history buff could ask for. Its Gothic style has a tower ringed with 10 circular turrets and a drawbridge. Visitors can walk around and enjoy its exquisitely furnished tapestries, armors and arms and then climb the tower and enjoy panoramic views of the countryside.  The Alcazar was originally used by the military and was built on a steep rocky crag hill.   During the 800-year Reconquista period, Alcazar occupants had an excellent vantage point and this castle proved to be impenetrable to approaching Moor invaders.

The Spaniards love to eat ham and this place is no exception. Everywhere you go you will see signs and displays for Cochinillo Asadoor or Suckling Pig.  It was explained to us that the roasted meat is so tender because the baby piglet is less than 3 weeks old, have never eaten any food just its mother’s milk and must not weigh more than 5 kilograms.  The dish is so popular that every tourist shop even sells suckling pig refrigerator magnets.

When in Spain we always have a hard time with the time schedule for eating.  They enjoy long, leisurely lunches, afternoon siestas and then around 9pm or later supper is offered in the restaurants. Sometimes this doesn’t work when traveling with children but ‘when in Spain.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Segovia, learned a lot about the Reconquista and the defeat of the Moors, Roman engineering genius, and how delicious churros are.

 

Thermal Bath Houses of Budapest are a Family Affair.

Budapest, Hungary is situated directly above 125 thermal springs and people have journeyed to this exquisite city since before Roman times to soak in the medicinal waters. There are so many wonderful things to do and see in Budapest, but spending sometimes in their famous bathhouses has to be at the top of your to-do list.

Locals religiously visit their favorite ‘hot’ spot to relax, soak and socialize. They refer to the ritual as ‘taking the waters’.     Some of the today’s bathhouses are built-in opulent structures that were designed during the Ottoman Empire and some are in disrepair, but all are very popular.  The City of Spas is world renown as a place to go if you want to experience first class thermal baths.

During a cold February business trip to Budapest, when I couldn’t convince any of my co-workers to accompany me to the thermal baths, I decided to go alone. I jumped on a trolley, crossed the Danube River over the Liberty Bridge and arrived at one of the most famous and popular bathhouses named Hotel Gellert.  Boy, was I glad I took that trolley car.

The Danubius Hotel Gellert and Spa is an elegant property built in the early 1900s in an Art Nouveau style.  The spa has 10 pools with varying degrees of heat, size, and grandeur. It has beautiful stain-glass windows and mosaic tiled floors but its maze-like interior is extremely confusing.  Once you pay the entrance fee you will be issued a plastic wristband for entry and access to your changing cabin and locker and be sure to ask for a map of the property.

I enjoyed wandering around the complex and trying all of the pools and steam rooms. I put my sore joints under giant faucets that shot out hot mineral water and immediately my shoulders and joints felt better.  I can’t overemphasize how healthy these medicinal waters make you feel. Immediately after leaving I felt lighter and healthier with a kick in my step. While I was solo among at least 200 other people, never once did I feel uncomfortable being alone.  This was the best spa I have ever been to.

About a year later our family visited Budapest during the hot and steamy month of July and the awesome thermal baths were just as popular as in the winter months.

After a much dreamed about repeat visit to the Gellerts Spa, we tried the Szechenyi Baths which has the hottest thermal waters in Europe.   This Neo-Baroque Palace was magnificent and the pools are routinely one of the most photographed locations in Budapest.    It has both numerous indoor and an enormous outdoor pool and was filled with people from all over Eastern Europe.  You won’t hear anyone speaking English here but laughter is a universal language and everyone was laughing and having a ball.   I saw some people drinking some of the mineral water from a dispenser so we had a small taste and it was horrid.   After paying the entry fee we were sent downstairs to the locker area.   After much trial and error, we finally figured out how to operate the lockers, changed into our swimsuits and were ready to get outside

The massive outside thermal pool has a unique circular shape with built in circular walls which people just walk around while soaking.  This movement causes a current so you are pushed around the edges of the underwater walls and constantly moving.   Definitely a new experience for me and so much fun. Everywhere you look people are smiling and enjoying this distinctive water experience.  I have to wonder why this circular water maze pool which is so much fun hasn’t caught on in the USA even though it has been in existence for over 100 years.  Inside the opulent palace, there are many other pools to bath in at different temperatures and depths.    This place was my daughter’s favorite spot in Hungary.

Gellerts and Szechenyi thermal bath houses are perfect places for an excursion while in Budapest for families and singles.  It cost about $20.00 for entrance to each bathhouse and bathing caps are mandatory.  Bring 2 towels for when you are in the sauna and steams and a dry one for when you change into your street and clothes.   Public transportation stops at both bathhouses and if you have some extra time while at Szechenyi, the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Gardens are about 1/8th of a mile away.

We love Budapest and your family will too.

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Hotel Gellerts Baths in Budapest
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Hotel Gellerts Baths in Budapest
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Hotel Gellerts Baths in Budpest
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Author and Daughter in Budapest
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Budapest Bath House
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Budapest Bath House

 

Family visit to the Great Synagogue and Holocaust Museum in Budapest

Budapest is a great place for family travel. It’s relatively inexpensive, extremely child-friendly and there are unlimited activities to keep the kids engaged, active and happy.

While touring Budapest with my then 10-year old and 20-year-old nephew, we visited the Jewish Quarter and were overwhelmed with great sadness of their history and awe of the strength, wisdom, and courage of the Jewish people.  We visited the Doheny Street Great Synagogue, which is the second largest Synagogue in the world after Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, and its neighbor the Jewish Museum and Cemetery.  These buildings comprised one of the borders to the 1944 Budapest Ghetto and contain plenty of exhibits about the Holocaust.

Inside the Synagogue my nephew was given a yarmulke by the attendant and we stood in wonderment of this magnificent building.  It was constructed in the 1850s in both Moorish and Romantic-style architecture and can easily hold 3000 worshipers. It was fully renovated in 1990 in large part with a generous donation from Estee Launder.

In the late 1930s there were approximately 750,000 Jews in Hungary but during the war, Hungary aligned itself with Germany and the Jews were forced into Ghettos.  These Ghettos were short-lived and about 430,000 of them were deported mostly to Auschwitz.  By the time the Soviets liberated Hungary in 1944, approximately 570,000 Hungarian Jews had perished during the Holocaust.

During the war, the Great Synagogue was used by the Nazi’s as a communication center but now it serves as the central location for the Jewish community in Budapest.  Although my daughter did not seem to appreciate the history of this building I could tell the significant impact this building was having on my nephew. He stopped being cool for a while and just stared with respect to the magnificent organ, balconies, and architecture.

My child was much more fascinated at the next door Jewish Museum which houses fascinating artifacts, clothing and memorabilia from Jewish history, traditions, and customs.  There is also a large exhibit area that deals with the terror of the Holocaust by displaying unique Hungarian videos, artifacts, newspaper headlines, and photos. The children in the videos and photos send a heartbreaking message about the cruelty of this war.  We all agreed more time was needed in this section but it gets very crowded.

Behind the structure lies the Raoul Wallenberg Park which is home to the Emanuel Tree. The Tree is a metal sculpture of a weeping willow tree with leaves inscribed with the names of the Hungarian Jewish Holocaust victims.  There are also memorial plates dedicated to non-Jews who selflessly helped during the war, including Swedish Diplomat Wallenberg who saved so many lives by preparing Swedish protective passports allowing thousands to escape. This is a somber, reflective place where many people are weeping. I know witnessing this sculpture made a real impression on my 10-year old because she immediately started asking questions about the Holocaust.

To get there take Street Car #47 or #49 and get off at the Astoria stop. Once you exit the trolley the streets are lined with cafés and shops prior to arriving at the entrance to the Synagogue and Museum.  To enter the Synagogue women must have their shoulders covered and men must wear hats or a yarmulke.

The Jewish Quarter is a must see while in Budapest for young and old alike.

 

Doheny Synagogue Budapest
Great Synagogue, Budapest
Budapest Synagogue
The Great Synagogue, Budapest
Emanuel Tree in Raoul Wallenberg Park, Budapest
Raoul Wallenberg Park, Budapest
Emanuel Tree Budapest
Emanuel Tree in Holocaust Museum Courtyard
Holocaust Museum Budapest
Holocaust Museum, Budapest

 

 

 

 

There really is a place with white washed building and blue domed roofs overlooking the sea in Greece.

Our Cruise to Greece

While in Europe walking the Camino Santiago de Compostela, my daughter and I decided to take a cruise to the Greek Islands.  We flew from Santiago, Spain to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and jumped into a taxi en route to the cruise terminal in Civitavecchia, Italy. This was an expensive endeavor because it’s 1.5 hours away but we needed to be at the terminal at a certain time and had no choice.

We decided on a Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Sea cruise because of the fantastic itinerary. This ship stops in Santorini on one day and it remains in port until about 9 pm while the other ships depart much earlier. I have always dreamed of sitting at one of  Santorini’s famed cliffside café at sunset while sipping an ouzo and this ship’s itinerary fits that bill.

We had a lovely stateroom with a large porthole window and plenty of space.  We were down on the 3rd deck which was considered a low deck, but it was fine by us and had the added bonus of no turbulence in rough waters.  After the safety drill, we explored the beautiful ship, signed up my daughter for the teen club and met our dining companions at the restaurant.  This is definitely an international cruise and most of the passengers appeared to be from Europe and Australia.

Soon after the ship departs it passes by Sicily with its incredible mountains and volcanos.  The next morning you will quickly see the change in color of the ocean with its brilliant color of blue. I spent the whole day at sea just gazing at the incredible water.

Our first port stop was Santorini.  We tendered to the dock and then you are faced with a large cliff in which you must get up to be in Fria, the capital.  You can either walk, take a scary chairlift or ride a donkey but all ways are straight up.  We choose the chair lift because it was about 100 degrees out and we felt sorry for the donkeys.  Once at the top you will be in a lovely, touristy town with lots to see, eat and shop.  But if you’re like most people your goal is to visit Oia, which is the town with the white house and beautiful blue roofs you see in most postcards.  We took a taxi and spent an enjoyable late afternoon in Oia where we browsed the expensive stores, watched the rich and beautiful folks stroll by, took too many pictures and enjoyed my supper by the sea at a cliffside restaurant at almost sunset.  GIA MAS!

Next port was Mykonos and I messed up. I decided against purchasing the cruise ship excursion to a family friendly beach because I thought I could do it myself and save money,  however, Mykonos is not the place to venture out without transportation.

After departing ship at the new port terminal in Tourlous you can walk to town which takes about 30 minutes  ( some sections are without sidewalks) or take a perilous ferry ride to Mykonos Island. Maybe it was just the day we visited but the rough seas almost tipped our ferry and no one seemed too alarmed. Once at Mykonos we were unable to find public transport, a taxi or instructions on how to get to the famous Paradise Beach. Finally, after an hour of wasted sunlight, a man approached and offered a ride for 40 euros. Normally this is not something I would do but I was desperate to get to the beach so I accepted. The ride was only about 10 expensive minutes and the beach turned out to be ‘party city’ with empty champagne bottles piled high and not in my opinion appropriate for my child, so we turned around and took a public bus home. Next time I will spend the money on the excursion unless I am certain I can get where I want to go.  This is now day 4 and we still haven’t had a swim in the Sea.

The next stop was Athens and everyone had warned me that I wouldn’t like it, but they were 100% wrong.  We spent 9 euros to uber to the Acropolis and then walked around the surrounding old city which I thoroughly enjoyed.  The people were very friendly and welcoming and there is an unlimited supply of shops, historical sites and small cafes in the area. I would go back in a heartbeat but it was very hot there, so be forewarned to bring a hat.

Our last port was Katakolon which is the closest port to the Ancient Olympic Stadium. All of our new friends on the ship were going to the Olympic area but we were going to the beach. I rented a small Avis car at the terminal which couldn’t have been easier. I drove about 20 minutes to Plankes Beach, rented a lounge chair or as they call them in Europe a ‘sunbed’ , ordered an ouzo and jumped into the picture perfect the Aegean Sea.  So beautiful and picture worthy that I am smiling writing about this wonderful family-friendly beach.  There are beach dwellers walking the beach selling linens from India, souvenirs and beach items but they did not pressure anyone. I bought about 4 linen beach cover-ups for about $5. each and when I returned home and gave them out everyone loved them.

I finally got to jump in the Sea and can’t wait to return to this port and Greece.

 

 

 

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Aegean Sea Actual Water Color
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Mother Daughter Adventure
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Santorini in the background
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Jewel of the Sea Window Room
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Santorini
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Santorini Life
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Santorini Life
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Mykonos’ new ferry terminal
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Welcome to Mykonos
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Pretty lane in Athens
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Historical Site in Athens
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Acropolis in the background
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Athen’s historical site
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Author enjoying the beach
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Katakolon vendor