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.
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.
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.
Sockeye Cycle Klondike Bicycle Tour – Skagway, Alaska
Have you ever wanted to escape the typical motor coach tour that is offered as an excursion while on a cruise ship? Do you dream about getting outside and really seeing the port, especially in a place like Alaska? We did just that last summer while in port at Skagway, Alaska. Prior to our cruise I researched mountain bikes and found a company that offered guided 6-hour mountain bike tours and signed the family up. The price was about $200. per person.
Once we disembarked from the cruise ship we met our fellow cyclists inside the Sockeye Cycle Store in downtown Skagway. This is a professional cycling store that offers different types of biking tours including bike repair and sales. There were about 10 of us in the group and we were fitted for bikes, helmets and whisked off in a van to the Yukon Train, about 5 minutes away. The guides then gave us a train ticket and told us they would meet us later in Canada.
We boarded the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Train, which travels on a narrow-gauge railroad for a scenic hour and a half trip through the Alaskan mountains into British Columbia, Canada. A guide on the train provided narration on life during the Gold Rush and pointed out important sites along the way. The train ride was a fascinating experience through wildflower fields, gold rush sites, raging rivers, waterfalls and mountain ranges. Most of the people on this train were there to simply enjoy the train ride but we were going on a 15 miles bike ride
After departing the train, we were met by our guides and a driver in a van hauling a trailer with about 12 mountain bikes. We were then transported thru the U.S. Canadian border crossing and arrived at our starting point on the Klondike Highway. This is a real highway with trucks speeding by and the bikes were so tall that my feet couldn’t reach the ground and I am 5’9”. This is not an adventure for the timid or those afraid of heights.
We were given a few minutes to practice with our bikes on the highway and then headed down the historic Klondike Highway for a thrilling 15-mile ride downhill. We were told to keep our speeds between 15 and 25 miles an hour. Yikes.
During our ride, we rode past glaciers, rivers, mountain ridges and cascading waterfalls. We saw bald eagles and sheep along the way and at one point we stopped at a large waterfall just off the street and enjoyed some delicious spring water. It was a magnificent experience that I will never forget.
Once we completed the downhill ride we then cycled our bikes thru the Alaskan countryside for a total of 15 miles and returned to the Cycle store. We were all exhausted but exhilarated by our mountain bike ride in Alaska. I am so grateful I did not do the typical cruise ship excursion and did something off the grid.
This trip would be perfect for families, groups or singles looking for an outdoor cycling adventure.
Sugarloaf USA Ski Resort
My extended family enjoys all types of adventure travel. Our group of 20 people includes about 10 young men who seem to want a bigger, faster, tougher travel experience. What thrills them is to surf/board giant waves, to ride fast bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles, and horses and to jump off cliffs to go for a swim. If there is a ski slope that is considered double black diamond my crazy nephews & brothers will be first in line. Not me, I like peaceful glide down an easy blue/ green ski slope with my nervous daughter in tow. It is never easy to please everyone on a large family vacation.
In 2017, during school vacation week we traveled from Massachusetts up to Sugarloaf Ski Resort in the Carrabassett Valley of Maine. It took us about 5 long hours to drive to Sugarloaf but you could also get there by bus, train or plane by flying into Portland, Bangor or Boston and then using a transfer service or rental car. We stayed at a rental house a few miles away from the resort but Sugarloaf has plenty of lodging options such as hotels, condos, and house rentals.
Sugarloaf is considered one of the East Coast’s Big Ski Mountains along with Killington and Sunday River. It has Maine’s 2nd highest peak at 4, 237 feet and the only chairlift that services above-treeline skiing on the East Coast. It has a vertical drop of 2, 830 feet, with 160 trails and 12 lifts.
2017 was a terrific year for snow accumulations and all the trails were open with great conditions. The snow was magnificent and I observed drifts up to the roofs on many of the condos roofs. It actually took us 5 adults an hour to dig out a path from the car to the rental house we stayed at when we first arrived. There was easily 4 plus feet of snow on the ground from the previous night.
Skiing is such an expensive sport and I don’t know how families do it. For a 2-day lift ticket with no add-ons, like rentals, the price is about $173. each. I found that because my daughter and I don’t ski the more difficult slopes that it is much more economical to buy a Mid Mountain Pass, which costs about $110 dollars each. With the Mid Mountain, you won’t be allowed on the black slopes but we wouldn’t be there anyway and I receive a significant price reduction. My nephews roll their eyes at these passes because of their cool, but that’s ok at least I have some money left over for a hot chocolate and some lunch.
We all enjoyed skiing Sugarloaf because there is something for everyone. Lots of trail options available with varying degrees of difficulty. I like riding on trails that provide a nice view or ride through forests, over bridges and rivers. Sugarloaf even has a tunnel that you can ski into which is under a small road and at the end you come out the other side. Very cool. The rest of the family likes to race down steep vertical drops and over moguls. We usually meet in the base lodge every few hours to discuss the slopes, the abundance of corduroy and to warm up.
Something you will notice right away is that the slope workers are nice folks. They appreciate families making the long drive to ski/ride and it shows. You will hear a lot of “Grateful Dead” and “Yes” blasting from the restaurants, bars, and chairlift speakers so if you like techno or rap you might need your own music device close by.
I skied Sugarloaf a lot as a child and all I remember is the cold and my clothes literally freezing to the chairlift but now, because of the high-tech clothing, we were able to stay much more comfortable. This mountain is no joke and some days the temperature is well below zero, so if you want to try it out make sure you pack accordingly.
The parking lots are well thought out and the shuttle buses stop and pick people up even if they are not a standing at the bus stop, again an example of the incredible positive attitudes the workers possess. Also, there is plenty of room on the outside of the shuttle for your gear.
While we were there they announced that the Sugarloaf Snow Fields were opened for the first time in 2 years. This rarely opened ski area is an all-natural ski terrane that is not groomed. Its entrance is located at the 4,237-foot summit at the top of Sugarloaf. We all took the chairlift to the top to see what the fuss was all about. The chairlift was pretty amazing because it was above the tree line on the mountain. It was windy and stunning but a bit scary. At the top, you have a 360-degree panorama view of Vermont, NH and Canada . You then have a choice try the powder-filled Snowfields or ride down a long, leisurely green slope. My brother chose the Snow Fields but was exhausted when he returned to the lodge.
Sugarloaf has great stores for winter clothing and ski/board shopping. It was not overpriced and they had a lot of unique items to choose from. The restaurants are plentiful with lots of options and the servers apparently work there so they can ski/board when they get off work.
The highlight after a strenuous & exhausting day of riding the slopes is always a visit to the Widow Maker Pub. This bar is loud, proud, has live music and serves Shock Top beer, what else could you want? And oh yeah, they play a lot of Jerry Garcia tunes because they know what makes their customers happy. We are going to try the Reggae Festival next winter.
Keep on Truckin!