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Trip Report Spain 2005

Author: Ben Shakman (More Trip Reviews by Ben Shakman)
Date of Trip: December 2005



Friday 4 NOV 05
We were supposed to get up early and go watch a Spanish military parade, but we slept through it accidentally. Our hostess, Eva, told me that we were going to get there just at the right time for the luncheon. The kids and I got ready and then we all left for the short ride over to El Pardo. We toured the grounds a bit and I was introduced to a number of Spaniards. We also made our way over to where they were preparing the paella for the luncheon. The company that they hired brought out what I thought was a huge paella pan -- a full 3 meters in diameter. Willy explained to me that they were known for preparing paellas for huge feasts and we talked with the cooks for a while. They gave me one of their brochures that indicated they were from a restaurant called Galbais and they were located in Valencia. With Willy translating for me, I learned that they hold the world record for the largest paella ever prepared -- it included 6,000 kg of rice and was prepared in a pan that was 21.5 meters in diameter. The 3-meter pan looked small in comparison yet it was still bigger than other pan I had ever seen.

We ate some tapas and had a little red wine while waiting for the paella to be served. My little one (Lizzy -- age 4-1/2) completely surprised me by eating her entire plate of paella. I also enjoyed mine, but Allison (age 7) did not care for it much and only ate the rice. This represented a complete reversal in the children's eating habits.

After the luncheon broke up, we toured El Pardo for the remainder of the afternoon. We visited the kennels where the kids were able to play with a number of the friendlier dogs. We also went to the stables and saw the king's 80 or so parade horses (and pet just about every single one of them). Finally, we saw a one-of-a-kind automobile that was kept in a separate garage. It was a six-wheeled Mercedes touring car. Only three of them were ever built and the Spanish one was the last one in existence. This one belonged to General Franco. The other two belonged to Mussolini and Hitler.

We went back to the apartment and I took the kids on a short walk with Eva so that we could get some bread for dinner. Spaniards are currently being torn between their traditional ways of shopping each day for fresh ingredients and using the "hiper-mart" in the interest of economy. It was great to visit a traditional Spanish bakery and I tried to buy the kids some cookies, but Eva would not let the clerk take my money. We hit an ATM on the way back and I finally laid my hands on enough Euro to actually do something of substance. I was amazed to reflect on the fact that I had already spent two full days in the country without even having enough of the local currency to pay for lunch. We had another fine Spanish meal and strategized the coming days.

Saturday 5 NOV 05
We had a quick breakfast of churros (Spanish donuts, shaped a little like a pretzel) and the traditional thick Spanish hot chocolate (mainly for dipping, although you drink it afterwards) then loaded up the kids for a trip to the zoo. Eva and the baby stayed at home so it was two grown men escorting three little girls.

The zoo is located in the "entertainment" district. Also located in the same area is an amusement park, a couple of museums, and street walkers who sell themselves in broad daylight -- Europe is certainly different than the US. Fortunately for me, the kids were looking the other way when we drove past that group and thus I narrowly avoided their questions.

The zoo cost 60 Euro to enter for our group -- I managed to pay before Willy knew what happened -- and lunch was another 30 (same story). My friend commented over sandwiches that we looked like divorced dads spending their allotted time with their children. I reflected on that all day as I noticed a disproportionate number of similarly constructed groups wandering the grounds as well.

The zoo in Madrid was fantastic! Their enclosures are much different than anything that I have seen in the major zoos in the US. Specifically, they have the larger animals in a habitat with a moat around the edge. On the viewing side of the moat is a 3-4 foot wide strip of grass and a sign telling you to stay off the grass -- that's it! There were no big fences to look through or barriers so high that the kids need to be lifted up to look at each animal. I suppose that the Spanish have reached a point in their legal system where their courts acknowledge that stupidity does not equate to liability if you get injured. The kids loved how close they were to the animals and the fact that they could walk around and see everything without needing to be picked up all the time. The kids really liked the bears, elephants, and penguins. They also had the opportunity to throw breadcrumbs at the ducks, geese, a free-range peacock, and some begging flamingos. We had a great time at the Madrid Zoo and I certainly consider it one of the best that we have visited.

Sunday 6 NOV 05
We woke up at a normal hour and Willy and I took a walk while his wife watched all four little girls. We went to a "churriscoria" and bought the days breakfast. We picked up a half-liter of chocolate, a half-dozen of the huge churros, and two dozen of the regular ones and it was about 8 Euro for the lot. The kids demolished almost all of the smaller ones and I am pretty sure that the baby ate two while the bigger kids had at least 6 each. The grownups were left with the larger ones (that weren't as good) and the crumbs.

We loaded up the same divorcee crowd and headed for the hills -- literally. Willy took us over to a mountain area called Sergovia and we stopped in a small town named Valsain for an outstanding lunch of traditional Spanish food and wine. I discovered that Allison likes lamb when she commandeered about half of my meal. She also has a taste for red wine and I gave her a very small portion. Lizzy ate spaghetti and we were all sufficiently fortified for what would turn out to be a somewhat physically demanding afternoon.

We left the restaurant and headed into the base of the valley where half of the town was located. We walked around and saw some cows out in a pasture and some horses in their stables. After stretching our legs for a bit, it was time to go hiking in the forest that covered the hills and mountains in the area. We went back across the main road and headed uphill. We stopped in the other half of the town so that the kids could all pet some dogs that were wandering around and then we headed up the trail that led to the forest. We discovered a fence at the edge of the forest and had to search for a gate. The explanation that Willy gave me was that the government sold the rights to carefully controlled timber harvesting activities to local companies and one of the provisions was that they had to allow open public access. I joked around with him and he assured me that the fence was not simply put there to prevent the trees from escaping. Thus, we went through the gate and into the forest.

We climbed up hill for several hundred meters of vertical elevation and probably almost two miles in horizontal distance. We stopped along the way several times to take pictures and climb on rock outcroppings. We finally reached a ridgeline that offered a fantastic view of the surrounding area and the valley below and rested for a few minutes before continuing back down. We utilized a logging trail and followed it down to a municipal area where we took the road back down to the town. Naturally, the way down was faster than the way up and we had fun running down the road until Lizzy slipped on some cow crap and did a face-plant in the middle of the trail. All during the vacation I had been telling her not to step in poop and she managed to find the only cow pie that we saw on the entire hike and tripped over it -- oh well, she's little and resilient.

I brushed her off and we made her feel better by finding a donkey for the kids to pet. After the donkey, we pet the same dogs that we saw on the way up and then continued back to the restaurant to clean up before getting in the car for the trip over to Segovia.

The town of Segovia is nested in the foothills and dates back many centuries. There is a very prominent Roman-built aqueduct that brought water from the mountains and deposited it into cisterns inside of the walled city. We arrived at dusk and the place looked so beautiful. We walked around the old city for a while and saw a bunch of medieval-era buildings and a stunning cathedral that was bathed in the warm glow of many carefully positioned lights. We also stopped in a small pastry shop where the grownups had some coffee and tea and the kids ate some pastries. They also managed to sample some outstanding Spanish cookies that were cooked until crispy and featured roasted pine nuts and granulated sugar on top of them. I pinched a bite of one when the kids weren't looking and it was quite good, although certainly an unexpected taste for the munchkins to enjoy.

We hit the road after buying the only durable souvenirs of the trip -- red t-shirts for the kids with an image of a Spanish bull silk-screened on the front. Willy debated over the route back to Madrid before settling on the Autopista. That turned out to be a mistake as there was a traffic jamb that extended all the way back to the sign that indicated that we were 62 km from Madrid. Apparently, there are only three main roads that connect Madrid with the rest of the country and the majority of the residents of the city are from elsewhere and it is common to leave town for the weekend. Unfortunately, these facts all lead up to creating phenomenal traffic jambs on Sunday evenings.

We doubled back to Segovia and then back through Valsain on the way to the mountain road that took us back to his house. Another unfortunate occurrence is that his parents had already arrived in advance of the ceremony at the embassy the next day and we were making everyone wait for dinner. The drive through the mountains was great and the lights of Madrid as seen from a distance were incredible. It was very easy to make out where the city was located -- one just looked in the direction of the solid line created by the red taillights on the highway.

We arrived at the Willy's piso at about 2230 and immediately sat down to another wonderful meal painstakingly prepared by Eva. She even cooked up another batch of homemade soup that Lizzy liked and the kid plowed right through an adult portion in no time. Willy's parents were very friendly and his father spoke some English so I was able to converse with him. His mother only spoke Spanish and she adored the kids. They all wound up playing together until it was time to force them to go to sleep -- Monday would be an early morning for everyone.

Monday 7 NOV 05
I set an alarm for 0645 so that I could have us bathed and dressed to leave for the embassy at 0730. I wore the Class-A uniform that I had lugged halfway around the world and kept the jacket in the trunk of the car until we arrived at the embassy. I was mindful of the Level I anti-terrorism briefing that I received before leaving the US. The ride took about an hour due to the traffic congestion and we had some difficulties with the directions. We finally arrived and the kids and I piled out while Eva and Willy's parents parked their cars.



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