Monday, November 26, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving from Madrid

I always thought that given the opportunity to cook my own Thanksgiving, I'd try all the healthy alternative recipes.  Although this quinoa stuffing that I made for dinner early last week was delicious, I ultimately decided that Luke probably gets his fill of quinoa, chick peas and meatless meals during our normal week night dinners, so I stocked up on butter and went all in.   Dressing from scratch using my Nana's fabulous recipe; homemade pie crust for a traditional pumpkin pie; hand whipped vanilla cream; creamy green bean casserole; candied yams; perfectly mashed potatoes (Luke's contribution); and finally spiced turkey and gravy; Our table was set and our plates full. 
After a hectic start including a rush thawing of our turkey in a sink full of ice water after realizing around 4 pm that I'd forgotten to take it out of the freezer, everything turned out tasty and warm at the same time. As evidenced by the "Before" and "After" of Luke's plate, my most important (and only) critic, I'd call it a success. 
Despite missing our classic family time during this holiday, we dressed up a bit, enjoyed a fabulous meal, Skyped with our families, filled our little refrigerator to capacity with leftovers and ended the night by putting up our tiny Charlie Brown Christmas tree while the Cowboys game was silently playing in the background. It was a homey, pleasant Thanksgiving. 
As Luke so perfectly put it in our pre-meal prayer last night, we have so much to be thankful for always, but this year especially. Our families who support us and love us enough that it reaches across an ocean. His job that, though stressful and challenging at times, allows us to do so much. The opportunity to be here in this new country, having once of a lifetime experiences and making precious, sweet memories. And finally, each other to share the best of times with and to support through the more difficult days.  If it weren't for me, Luke would be living in an empty apartment with an air mattress and cardboard box furniture. If it weren't for Luke, I wouldn't even be in Spain but somewhere else, maybe 5 lbs. lighter but on my couch eating blah grilled chicken and vegetables for a lonely dinner every night. Love you so very much, sweet Luke. I'm thankful that our shared life is better than our single lives and that I get to spend the rest of it with you, my very best friend.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What Happens in Amsterdam....

stays in Amsterdam. No, I'm just kidding. However, there aren't many stories to tell.  And ironically, despite the lack of stories to share, insights to offer or things to gush about, this was probably my favorite city that we've visited to date.  Other than a tour of the Anne Frank House, which was really well done and definitely worth a visit, and a brewery trip to the Heineken Experience, which was cool but nothing to write about, we didn't have much of an agenda. 

And that's why I loved it. (Well, that and their ability to speak English. :)) I don't like vacations where the list of things you must see or do is long, and every minute of your trip has to be planned out in order to fit it all in. Nope. That's normally not for me. I'd rather wander, see what we see and do what hits us as we happen upon it.

We strolled through Dam Square, in the center of the old town,

where we saw scenes that made it easy to imagine an Amsterdam of earlier years. 

We wandered past beautiful churches, 

and across iron bridges spanning large, flowing canals. 

We pointed out all the cyclists (so many!), but unfortunately, weren't fast enough to catch a picture of one of the cycling moms, who somehow managed two kids, a dog and a bag full of groceries all on a bike!

We couldn't get enough of the beautiful fall foliage, 

or the precious, slightly slanted narrow houses that lined every canal and street. 

We laughed at Coffee shops with funny names and laughed again when we opened the door for a peek and were hit in the face by a sweet, skunky smell. 

We discovered a new favorite drink

and the state of Oklahoma, right there on the wall of an Amsterdam restaurant!

We began to get in the Christmas spirit, which was easy given the cold temperatures and bright lights,

and saw sights that reminded us of our family at home. 

We walked by the skinniest house in all of Amsterdam


and spotted swans swimming through the canals. 

We happened upon a tiny local cafe, where the swaying shelves are solely filled with the local favorite liquor, Genebre,

and glanced in the coziest of cafe's, where it just looks like "everybody knows your name."
We pretended to be professional photographers,

and made a quick round through the Red Light District, just to say we'd seen it. No photos allowed.

We just enjoyed...every laid-back, agenda-free, worry-free, go-with-the-flow moment...together.

Day Trippin' to Toledo

It seems like we've thrown around the idea of taking a quick trip to Toledo since we arrived in Spain nearly 5 months ago, but between being out of town, Luke having to work through the weekends or the desire to enjoy lazy days in our apartment, it took us until just a couple of weeks ago to make the quick trip.  On this trip, we were pleasantly joined by Alex, who is a friend of our friend, Aaron. Alex's work brought him to Madrid for a couple of weeks, and we were finally able to meet up and day trip to Toledo together on his final Saturday in Spain. 

Approximately 88 km (55 miles) and a quick 30 minute train ride on the high speed AVE, Toledo, the former capital of Spain, is a super easy day trip from Madrid.  Luke and I met up with Alex in the Atocha train station on a rainy Saturday morning and were in Toledo before we knew it. Toledo sits atop a hill, offering panoramic views, hosts what some consider to be the most beautiful cathedral in Spain and has a rich artistic influence, especially from El Greco, their former resident artist.  After making it to the top of the hill, we walked through the cathedral, each of us equipped with our own audio guide that was included in the entrance price.  The cathedral was beautiful, but I've found that it's quite difficult to capture the beauty of any cathedral in pictures (at least when you're an untrained, minimally skilled photographer.) The colors, stained glass, golden altars and rich colors are certainly impressive, but the camera can't capture the reverent feeling that you feel upon entering or the vastness of the large holy spaces. Despite this, I continue to try. 

A view of the outside.
Intricate altar.
The wooden engraved choir seats.
A skylight allowed in beautiful sunlight.
Holy altar.
Famous El Greco painting that is housed in the cathedral.

After finishing our tour of the cathedral, we opted out of visits to the various museums in favor of experiencing the medieval town by freely roaming the narrow brick streets. We did a bit of tapa hopping, popped into several souvenir shops to look at beautifully painted tiles and piercingly sharp swords, went on an unsuccessful hunt to find a restaurant where we could dine in a cave and enjoyed the beautiful views from the top of the hill.  Thanks to Alex for joining us on this trip! We enjoyed good conversation and always love meeting new friends! It was a day well spent in Toledo, and we were back in Madrid in time to enjoy a nice dinner with our Madrilenian amigos.

Alex and Luke.
Narrow winding streets. Not many cars, but the ones we saw were a tight squeeze!
I just liked this little corner. Muebles = Furniture.
We stumbled upon this pub that was primarily decorated with US and English university regalia.
The raining morning gave way to puffy white clouds and some late afternoon sunshine.
Colorful tiles in the roads while walking through the old Jewish neighborhood.
This shop had a cave underneath it that was full of beautifully painted tiles, and we learned that caves are quite common here. This is what sparked our quest to find a restaurant where we could dine in such a cave.
Us with the cathedral behind us.
The entrance to the city, Abbey Road style.
The literal door to Toledo.
I can never find key chains or trinkets with my name on it, but at least I can find tuna (and balsamic vinegar in Italy). Ha!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Puente in Oporto

Puente in Spanish means "bridge" and is also the word used to refer to a long weekend. For example, if there's a holiday on a Friday, it's a "puente" because it "bridges" the week to the weekend. We made the most of our first puente in Spain and took a road trip to Oporto, Portugal. As is becoming a common theme around here, we left later than we wanted and then took a little 1.5 hour detour (i.e. got lost) along the way, but we still arrived in Oporto in time to see the city by night, take a glimpse of the beautiful train station, have a drink and appetizer at Cafe Majestic, the oldest cafe in Oporto, and sample our first seafood in the port town.

Walking down a main street. Destination: Cafe Majestic.

Clock in the beautiful old train station.

Roasted chestnuts bought on the street corner. Apparently, these are all over the place in Madrid winters as well. Can''t wait because they were delish!
Not only was Oporto our first Spanish puente, it was also our first time using Airbnb to book our lodging. Luckily, our first experience was a good one. We started out Saturday morning with breakfast at a nearby cafe that came recommended from our Airbnb host. Then we happened upon several flea markets, climbed the Clerigos Tower, walked through the Mercado do Balhao and eventually made our way across the Dom Luis bridge, that spans the Duoro River, for some port wine tasting. 

Once we crossed the bridge, we were in for a treat! We started with a port wine tasting at Porto Kopke, where we were super glad that we'd only ordered one tasting to share when we saw the large pours, were impressed with the chocolates that accompanied the port tasting and left with a beautiful bottle of port from 2009 (our marriage year) that we're saving until a big anniversary that has yet to be decided.

We thought about stopping in the large Sandeman's winery for a tour but changed our minds when a large tour bus unloaded just in front of us. Instead, we took a tour of a smaller winery, Vasconcellos, before returning to the other side of the river. 

I recognized the Sandeman's labeling. Do you?
The color of port wine changes significantly with time.

Rows of barrels.

The next afternoon, we rounded out our experience in Oporto by having the freshest seafood of our lives, where they literally pull the fish out of the Atlantic, transport it less than a mile, throw it on a grill and serve it. There's a street in Oporto (that I unfortunately can't recall the name of and every Google search I've tried is failing me!) that is lined with outdoor seafood restaurants. Again, we would have never known about this area if it weren't for our Airbnb host. 

More than satisfied with our time in Oporto (It may be one of our top favorites yet, and we would happily return!) and smelling a bit fishy, we jumped back in the rental car and started the longish, yet pleasant, journey back to Madrid.