Sunday, October 28, 2012

Labor Day Reunion in Stresa, Italy

Over labor day 2011, we met up with Luke's best man, basketball buddy, Grass Masters co-owner and long-time friend, Adam, in Chicago for a weekend of Notre Dame football, Cubs baseball, delicious food, cold drinks, good conversations and, best of all, lots of laughter. (Click here to read that recap!)

Friday night B.Y.O.B. dinner at HB.

Chicago style pizza at Pizzano's.

Saturday night dinner at The Purple Pig. What I remember most about this dinner was the laughter!
As the weekend ended, I remember that we casually said that we should make a Labor Day getaway an annual tradition, and this year we made good on that idea. Adam was in Italy for about a week with the Northwestern University women's basketball team, where he's an assistant coach, and Luke and I were able to meet up with him in Stresa, Italy, on the shores of Lago Maggiore, during the tail end of his trip. We went on a group tour with Adam's team and shared a couple of meals and nights out with his co-workers. We enjoyed getting to meet the great people that he works with everyday, but most of all, we loved getting to reconnect with this guy on the other side of the big, wide world! Luke has such great friendships that have lasted since high school or even before, and I'm lucky to have married into this circle of friends. These friendships that have lasted across years and thousands of miles are so very special to both of us. 

On the shores of Lago Maggiore.

Peacock sighting during the group tour of the palace.

Beautiful gardens at the palace.

Lago Maggiore in the distance and the royal gardens in the forefront.
Good friends. Silly poses.

Before parting ways on our final night in Italy.
We're so glad we had the opportunity to meet up in Italy and can't wait to host friends in Madrid and organize more impromptu reunions...wherever they may be!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Lake Como Take Two

Determined guy that he is, Luke got up with the sun the next morning and set out to conquer Monte Crocione that we'd tried to reach the day before and failed. Without the cow in his path or a complainer in his shadow, he made it much higher than we did the day before. Not to be outdone by him, I went on a 5 mile run along the lake and then enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at our hotel. Since I wasn't on this hike, I'll let Luke's short videos and pictures do the talking. 

Mountain goat on a....mountain.

Lake Como below.

Snow capped alps in the distance.

The path on the side of the mountain.

The cross at the top of Monte Crocione.

Cows at the top of the mountain. How'd they get up there?

After Luke returned from the hike, we loaded up the Fiat Panda and drove through Switzerland to Stresa, Italy. That recap coming soon!

Holy Cow, Lake Como

The day after we returned to Madrid from Greece, we booked an impromptu trip to Italy, where we visited Lake Como, and then met up with Luke's long time best bud and my best boy bud by marriage, Adam, in Stresa, Italy.  We had known for a while that Adam was coming to Italy but weren't sure if we would be able to make our schedules work. At the last minute we decided that we couldn't pass up the opportunity to see such a good friend on this side of the pond and pulled the trigger. We booked the trip on Friday early afternoon and flew out to Milan early the next morning, where we rented a car, made a brief stop for lunch in the center of Milan and then drove about 1 hr South to Lake Como.

A plaza in Milan.

The Duomo in Milan. Luke got to walk through, but I wasn't allowed because I was wearing shorts. So was Luke. Sexual discrimination. ;)

Remember my earlier travel advice from Paros and Asturias? When you see a tiny door, pose in front of it.
When we arrived in Lake Como, we checked into our hotel, went to dinner and then browsed through a cute wine shop where we bought a nice bottle called Fay that we plan to save until we make it back up to Fayetteville someday.

Our special bottle.
The next morning we enjoyed breakfast at our hotel, did a little reading and coffee drinking while overlooking the Lake and then headed off for a hike. The hike was supposed to be about 4 km straight up to the top of a mountain called Monte Crocione and then 4 km back down. But it didn't quite go as smoothly as planned. Probably about 2 km into the climb, we came across a huge, mean cow standing right in our path. The cow was in his "yard" but there was no fence or barrier between him and us.  We've come across sheep, goat, deer and even cows before on hikes, and I am always scared to pass. Luke normally talks me into continuing on saying that the animals aren't paying any attention to us. This time was different, and I knew it was serious when Luke agreed. This gigantic cow was staring directly at us and then started making an awful moo. I wish we'd gotten it on video because this was no normal moo. He was warning us. I ran to higher ground reasoning that maybe I could try to climb a tree if the cow charged while Luke took a quick video. ( Click here for video of our encounter with the cow!) We waited a few minutes to see if he would go on his way letting us safely pass.  He didn't budge but continued to moo, so we slowly backed down the path disappointed but ready to get the heck away from that scary cow!

Leisurely morning on the lake.

Beautiful day for a hike.

All smiles, kisses and hugs before the cow.

The donkeys let us pass...

But the cow wouldn't have it.

The hike kind of went down hill (no pun intended) after the cow got in our way (pun intended.) We headed back down the hill and decided to go up another way to Monte Nava. We climbed steep hills for what seemed like hours and never made it to the top of anything, and I have to admit that I began suffering from what many might call an attitude problem. My legs were exhausted and burning from the climb. We didn't have a map and knew no idea what path we were on, where we were headed or how long to expect it to take. And I know it's all about the journey, but with hiking, it's kind of a lot about the destination. It's hard. You spend so much time staring at the ground as you walk to keep from tripping over rocks or tree trunks, but you know you'll be rewarded at the end with a beautiful view or an amazing waterfall. This time I didn't have the reward at the end to look forward to, and I was pretty ready to be done. We eventually passed another couple who was turning around and heading back down the mountain. They said that they'd talked to a local hiker who had told them that they were still a ways away from the top and there was a chance of rain. We didn't want to get stuck in the rain or dark and Luke was probably sick of my complaining, so we turned around and headed down to. We stopped at a random spot on the side of the path and had the quick picnic that we'd packed before continuing down. If I remember correctly, we probably hiked "up" for 5-6 hours; we got down in about 45 minutes. Obviously, it was much easier going down the supremely steep hills, but I'm also convinced that we went back and forth across the mountain too. There were tons of paths and turns, and remember, we were trail guide-less. After our long day, we enjoyed a nice, long tasty dinner at an adorable local restaurant recommended to us by our hotel.

Change of plans. Monte Nava it is.

Lake Como.

I think this picture is quite funny to compare to the first one. I was finding it harder to smile at this point. :)

We didn't make it to the top, but this tunnel we had to walk through was pretty cool.

Picnic with a view.

At dinner, the lady brought out this electric thing to kill a fly. Luke got to play with it.

After dinner Grappa. When in Rome Italy...

The restaurant was rustic, romantic and delicious.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Work Out Wrap-Up #4

Hmmm. So probably no one cares, but I kind of like to do these work out wrap-up posts to keep me accountable to myself (and to have something to point to if I realize that my jeans aren't fitting and can't figure out why!) Since training for and running the Cowtown half marathon last February, I've kept a pretty consistent log of my workouts, minus our first 2 weeks in Spain and the month of August, though I don't always blog it.  

So far here in Spain, I've been really happy with my gym. It's more expensive than what we had to pay for L.A. Fitness in Dallas, but it's worth it. It's really nice to work out in a female only environment (except for the trainers), and there's a great schedule of classes that includes Body Pump, which I've been trying to fit in twice a week. Since finally purchasing a swim cap, I've also taken advantage of the indoor pool a couple of times. Before the cooler Fall days arrived, I was going to the gym more. The last couple of weeks, though, have been so nice that I've favored a run through Retiro, a big nice park only about 1 km from our apartment, over treadmill monotony.

Keeping up with a regular exercise schedule over here has been really important to me. It gives me something to do every day, even when I have nothing else on the agenda, and keeps me from sitting in the apartment by myself all day. (Not to mention, it allows me to enjoy our vacations and weekends while still being able to fit in my bridesmaids dress for Anna's wedding come March!) Whether running through the park full of people or taking part in a group class at the gym, it helps make me feel a part of the city and life beyond my apartment. Also, the classes are totally helping me with Spanish! I understand so much more than I did during my first class and have had the occasional opportunity to interact one on one with the instructors.  

The entrance to my gym, O2 Wellness Center on Calle de Ramon de la Cruz.

My favorite straight stretch to run up in Retiro. You can kind of see some of the fall color here.
And with that, I'm off to the gym for 1:30 yoga class, only my 2nd one in Spain so far! I was actually sore the day after my first time, but the stretching felt so good. I'm hoping it will help rest and stretch my legs before the race on Sunday! Work hard. Play hard. Peace out.

Life Lately in Madrid

After returning from our non-stop travels in August, we've finally had a pretty good period of time in Madrid and have started to settle in nicely. Luke is back at the daily grind, usually leaving the house around 8:30 and returning around the same time in the evening, sometimes earlier, sometimes later on both ends. I started Spanish classes at Escuela Oficial de Idiomas on October 8th and am just finishing up my 3rd week of classes. I go every day from 5-7. So far, I really like my teacher, Concha, and hope that I start seeing more and more improvement soon!  Between the gym or running, class and homework everyday, keeping the apartment clean, laundry and running errands, which takes much longer here given the lack of our car and the necessity to go multiple places in order to get each type of item (There is no Target or Wal-Mart in the city center!), my days go by pretty quickly.

Everyone continues to be so friendly and welcoming, and we have been lucky to find a couple of groups of friends to share some of our time with.  Several weeks ago, we had a group of people over to our house for tapas and wine. I met Colleen through the Americanas in Madrid Facebook group and then met Erin through Colleen. They both came with their significant others. Jose is Colleen's Spanish fiance, and Dani is Erin's Mexican boyfriend. We've also met up for drinks, a cheese festival and shopping (girls only!) with this group. 

Jose is a very talented guitarist and knows a plethora of songs, so when we get together, the night usually ends with a sing-a-long! (Me, Erin, Colleen, Jose, Luke, Dani.)

Mexican food in Madrid after the Cheese festival. (Erin, Dani, Jose & Colleen. You should know the front row!)

Luke's co-worker, Jose Carlos, has been beyond friendly since the week we arrived. He was the first person to invite us out for dinner when we were brand new to Madrid, and since then we have hung out with him and his best friend, Nico, several times.  They both speak pretty good English and love the opportunity to speak so that they can keep improving. They also encourage me to speak Spanish with them and are so nice and helpful to help me with new words or to provide constructive criticism. 

Luke, Jose Carlos, Nicolas, Me, Elena, Almu & Francisco
Luke and Jose Carlos
Luke has to work this weekend. Although the last two weekends that we thought he would have to work, it got called off at the last minute, so I'm still holding out hope for that to happen again. Unfortunately, I don't think we'll get lucky a third time. While Luke works on Sunday, I'm running in my first European 10-K. The weather looks like it will be a nice, cool Fall weekend with highs in the upper 50's and low 60's. So other than work and running, it looks like we'll have a pretty chill weekend in Madrid. 

We miss our families like crazy and can't wait for the next opportunity to see everybody or anybody! Have a good weekend in Texas, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Arkansas, Tennessee (wherever you are!) and know that you're always on our minds! 


Sunday, October 21, 2012

It's All Greece to Me: Crete

Our two days and nights in Crete can be summed up pretty easily: car wreck, beautiful beach, 16 km hike. 

After a choppy ferry ride over from Paros, where we were among the lucky few who didn't lose their lunches, we rented a car and made the two hour drive to Chania Town, Crete and eventually found Hotel Doma; our home for the next two nights. When we arrived, they gave us a welcome drink that basically tasted like cough syrup and double the sugar kool-aid. I imagine it tastes similar to the orange stuff that you have to drink for the gestational diabetes test during pregnancy, but I've never done that and can't be sure.  Needless to say, I dumped mine out. Again, the room was pretty simple, but we liked how the common areas of the public area were full of unique Greek antiques. Also, the complimentary breakfast included Greek yogurt, honey, melon, a selection of dried fruits, meats, cheeses and even made to order eggs. It was served in a quaint, antique filled room with beautiful sea views and definitely the best hotel breakfast we've had yet. 

After filling ourselves with the complimentary breakfast the next morning, we loaded up in the car and headed out to a nearby beach that we'd heard was beautiful.  As we were leaving town, I had the brilliant idea to drive through the town center since we hadn't seen it yet.  Unfortunately, the streets were tiny, crowded and confusing.  We turned up one street only to find that it dead ended, without warning, in front of a building. As Luke was reversing back down the one way street, a car that had previously been parked on the side of the street started to pull out of the parking spot and.....CRUNCH! Luckily, there wasn't much, if any, damage to our rental car, but the other guy's car had a pretty big dent in the driver's side door. As the other driver was a local and the insurance people coming would also be Greek, we pretty much thought that we'd be screwed seeing as we don't speak any Greek.  But again, we got lucky.  The guy we hit pretty much agreed that it was his fault since he didn't look before pulling out, and the insurance agent was in agreement as well.  We didn't have to pay anything and never heard anymore about it. The worst part was that we had to sit in the tiny street for nearly three hours, no exaggeration, waiting on the insurance agent to arrive and wasting precious hours of beach time.  

The scene of the accident.

The tiny little scratches to our car.

Dent in the other guy's car.

Finally! The insurance agent arrived, took a few pictures and heard both sides of the story before we finally got to leave!
After the events of the morning, arriving at the beach was even sweeter! Luke said that the car wreck was kind of like stinky cheese. It's just kind of gross until you take a nice taste of complementary red wine, but then the stinky cheese makes the wine even better. :) The car wreck was the stinky cheese and the beach our nice red wine. We enjoyed a few hours on the beach before taking the "old road" back to Chania Town. On the journey back, we stopped for a few sunset pictures and bought some olive oil, honey, olives and some type of Greek liqueur from a guy on the side of the road. 

Warning: Luke spent a lot of time photographing on this beach and playing with some different settings on our camera, so I'm going to share lots of pics. Potential visual overload below.

Pink sand beach.

The next morning we got up nice and early to catch a 7 am bus that took us up, up, up on an 1.5 hour climb through the mountains of Crete. Our final destination was the Samaria Gorge National Park, where we started a 16 km hike that would take us down through the Samaria Gorge, ending in a unique black sand beach on the Libyan Sea. The gorge was created by a small river running through the mountains and much of our hike was spent walking through the rocky river bed, which is why the park is only open for hiking from about the end of May through September when the river is mostly dry. Since we were just wearing semi-soft soled tennis shoes, the rocks were pointy on the bottoms of our feet! If I remember correctly, I think it took us about 6 hours to complete the 16 km walk. It was a hot, strenuous but beautiful 6 hours, and the reward at the end was totally work it. Or as they say in Spanish, "Vale la pena!" The black sand beach, which was more like little pebbles than sand, was so cool and like nothing I'd ever seen before. The water was absolutely gorgeous and the waves were gentle. It felt so nice to relax in the water after a long, hot hike; it was definitely the most time that I spent in the ocean instead of in my chair on the beach! It was also pretty neat knowing that you were in the Libyan Sea so close to Africa and a completely different part of this great big world!

After catching a ferry and then a bus back to Chania town, we were worn out. We ordered a pizza to our hotel room and then fell right asleep.  The next morning we had to rush off to the airport. Like always, we didn't give ourselves enough travel time, so we were pretty worried about missing our flight.  Luckily, though, they gave us priority passes to skip to the front of the luggage check-in and security lines, and we made it just in time. Volvimos a Madrid!

Excited to start the hike!

 A beautiful morning in the mountains of Crete!

Just a donkey tied up on the side of the trail.
Part of the area we walked through were covered with little figurines made of stacked rocks.

We made a few of our own stacks!

A small waterfall where we rested along the way.

Holding up a 1 ft measurement for scale.

Luke and the Giant Tree.

One more with the giant tree.

1.2.3...Jump! (Camera woman's timing was off!)

Narrow walkway.

At the most narrow point, only about 3 yards separated the towering cliffs.

Enjoying a well deserved cold one.
We saw these baby sheep being loaded into the truck and taken to town. When we got to the town, we noticed that many of the restaurants boasted roasted baby sheep as their specialty. :(

Black sand. Blue water. I think the water in Greece was the inspiration for the Crayola color "Cerulean Blue."
Like quick sand. You sunk right through the black sand.
You can see here how the black sand stuck to my feet was more pebble like than sand.

This man totally dropped his drawers and very thoroughly dried himself for like 5 minutes! Too funny not to photograph.
The Libyan Sea.