spain

The Stages of a Dream (Holiday House)

Stage 1: A seed is planted.

Careful accounting of a potential extra income stream was not the reason we started talking about the prospect of a holiday house.  This view was. 

This picture was taken in Andalucia, Spain in 2013 on one of our very first trips in Europe.  It was young love at first sight.  Here’s the story of our first date.

Stage 2:  Fire hose watering.

What generous people would call the brainstorming phase, husband’s of wives with an internet connection and blind love for the words “villa” and “finca”would might call the crazy house hunting phase.  This was about a year long period when I found about 30 *perfect* houses where search parameters = nil and I seemed to keep forgetting the reality of three still to pay college tuitions.

Stage 3: Plan to paper.

Adhoc approaches may work in finding your next vacation destination but once Spanish property law starts encroaching on your intraweb searching, you know it’s time to get sangria-serious.  At some point, wanting to buy a holiday house in Spain because of the climate, friendly people and olive trees isn’t enough direction for the search box.  It was through this phase and the accumulation of many more travel experiences in Spain and elsewhere that brought necessary parameters to the search.  Honestly, we wanted to find a place that brought us a sense of rest and peace that our first trip to Andalucia inspired and to be able to share that experience with others.

The parameters ... The vast majority of foreigners considering property in Spain naturally look along the coast, particularly the Costa del Sol which is much like Florida.  We however went the less popular direction and narrowed our search to inland property in either Granada or Cadiz province, a property within 5-10 minutes of a village, 10-20 minutes to a town with services, less than 90 minutes (ideally 60 minutes) to the coast, a major tourist attraction in Spain, and to an airport.  We were also looking for a smaller sized property surrounded by protected land with open vistas of hills and/or mountains, and an already redone comfortable property connected to water, electrical and high speed internet with an existing holiday rental track record.   In short, we were looking to find a needle in a sea of white villages.

Stage 4:   The Wait.

This is the phase where week after week you get the “Sorry, we don't currently have any property matching your criteria.” and you start to think that maybe it was Italy you really fell in love with.

Stage 5:   A Match.

When you are least expecting it, a casual refresh button on a dream sometimes yields a result that looks like this.   After several years of casual browsing, this was the first and best priced property that ticked all of our boxes and then some.

The matching proof ... Not only does this property have the most stunning views of the Andalucian countryside but it also has views of the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas.  It’s within a 10 minute drive to Montefrio, recently named as one of the ten best views in the world by the National Geographic magazine.  It is a 40 minute drive to the major tourist attraction of Granada and the Alhambra, a 60 minute drive to the coast, and 90 minutes from Malaga airport.  The property is less than one acre with 6 olive trees, 15 almond trees, and 3 fig trees in production but with the acres of protected land around it – it feels like the mountain version of being on your own deserted island.  Comfort, connections, and turn-key rental business also checked.

Stage 6:  The Preparation.

This is when the spreadsheet comes out and you gather the courage to send your first inquiry email.  In this case it was directly to the private seller who is a British family who restored the cortijo themselves and who patiently answered all my detailed questions.  Through the back and forth, it was clear it was a property I needed to see in person.  I also sent an email to Andrew Forbes, the owner of the first house we stayed in in Andalucia.  As a foreigner who has bought a house in Spain and a travel compatriot, Andrew had lots of good advice including this:  “Buy the house or any house in Spain because you love it - don't buy for investment - too big a risk.”  He also told me to be aware that this part of Spain is very, very hot in summer.  And as serendipity would have it, Andrew had actually visited this property once when a friend was renting it and had written glowingly about it on his blog.   

Stage 7: Reality Meets Dream.

It is wise to bring a wing man when you are chasing a dream.   As my husband was working, he suggested our 19 year old son come as his surrogate.  Not only was Quinn a fantastic traveling companion and navigator but in one of those parenting inversions, he was the voice of reason and comfort when my anxiety got the better of me a couple of times.   

The flight time from London to Malaga is normally a manageable 3 hours but for our journey … the trains to Gatwick were delayed ... the computers for passport control weren’t operational when we landed in Malaga causing queue unrest ... then there was my driving for the first time in 7 months .. in the dark… with the GPS not working …  me yelling at my son instead of the GPS …around spaghetti freeways … in a tiny Fiat that had no pick up when I floored it … getting pulled over by a police officer for having the brights on and saying “Merci” instead of “Gracias” … needless to say, in your dreams – you forget the travel hassles.  And we were only coming from London.

Right, the flight time from Seattle to Malaga is 15 hours.  Noted.

The 90 minute drive to the property the next morning was better.  We arrived exactly on time and were greeted by the owners who graciously toured us around this place they had so lovingly invested the last 10 years in.  Quinn eagerly snapped photos and videos as I asked questions.  The property, and especially the setting, was even better in person than in photos.   We called Brett excitedly after the house visit and our lunch in Montefrio. 

But, by afternoon the known reservations we had talked about during the paper exercise hit me like a two-by-four.  Quinn hashed it out with me for hours as we spent that evening walking the streets of Granada.  As much as I loved the property and the potential, I couldn’t image my family and friends from the USA spending the time or money to get there.  I couldn’t imagine us getting there when we move back to Seattle.  And even though there was a great rental history and support infrastructure, I couldn’t imagine managing a property from that far away.   I didn’t want what started as a dream of a place of rest to become a burden.  And Andrew wasn’t kidding:  it was hot.  Too hot.   But it took me being there to understand it at a heart level.

Right, to embrace the slow life we have found in Spain, it isn’t about a place as much as it is about intention.  We can unplug and enjoy the scenery where ever we find ourselves.   So the dream of owning a holiday house has died – not because we didn’t find one – but because we did and it told us, “Not now.”

Cadiz, Spain: Cortijos, Wild Beaches, and Finding your Travel Brand

When we first started traveling as a family, I remember asking a seasoned veteran for advice and she said: “Learn your family’s brand of travel.”  What she meant was it’s easy to be seduced by guidebooks or someone’s amazing photo album or to plan a trip based on what you think you should do and see and so it’s important to overlay a filter on what you know about yourself and your family before you book anything.  I know my family does not appreciate classical music.   This is helpful filtering information when people keep telling you not to miss the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

After several years of experience, we’ve developed our family brand of travel.  It revolves around lots of activity, walking/beach hiking, good restaurants and special, usually small, places to stay outside of big cities where food features and there’s a pool.   It doesn’t even have to be a good pool.   It’s not to say that we don’t do city vacations or lay on the beach vacations but we have found our sweet spot in comfortable country inns in unique settings that take pride in feeding their guests what’s local.  It’s the B&B version of agrotourism.  What we might term B&D – Bed and Dinner. 

The best of the bunch are places with plenty of nearby activities to do by car including an iconic tourist site/city in day trip distance and ideally within a 90 minute radius of an airport.   If your family does not appreciate set menus, wants to be invisible to other guests, or is uncomfortable with “don’t know until we get there” cell phone service, please remember to filter what I’m telling you.

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Brett and I have been talking about this and one of the reasons we think we enjoy this kind of travel is that it allows us to “turn off” the paralysis of having too many choices to make.   While wonderful, big cities come with a long list of must see attractions which unless carefully managed can lead to a “choice overload problem.” The problem with too many choices is that is can cause family friction in decision making and chip away at your sense of satisfaction and relaxation.   The list is always longer than the time.  Museums in our family are usually less than seamless negotiations and the so-called agony we’ve put our children through in “finding the perfect restaurant” is certain to be remembered years from now.

When we are in these more rural settings, our choices - things to do, places to eat - are naturally more limited which safeguards against feelings of regret or the fear of missing out on something important or awesome.  Fewer choices also frees up mental RAM space to really absorb the local culture.  We want to know we don’t have to go in search of a good meal and that coming downstairs will be enough to make that happen.   Not to mention that if your goal for vacation was to disconnect from the day to day noise of work and social media, the need to be glued to your phone in a city for navigation and real time research makes it harder to follow through on that intention. 

Finding these unique places does take more planning and research and so word of mouth helps.  I’ve shared about previous trips we’ve taken in this vein to Puglia, Northern Portugal, and Croatia.  We hit the jackpot again this past October over a 4 day weekend in Cadiz, Spain.   I got behind in writing about this because of our move to London but this is another gem you should know about.  

Let’s imagine that you are living in Europe and want to escape the cold (or madness of the world) and get some sand in your toes.  But you don’t want to fly all the way to the Greek islands to get it and you’d rather something different than Marbella and the Costa del Sol.   The province of Cadiz in Southern Spain and the unspoiled beaches of the Costa de la Luz might be your ticket.

We stayed outside the white village of of Vejer de la Frontera  in one of these country inn like places called Casa La Siesta.  The rustic Andalucian cortijo style building has eight spacious guest rooms, a separate yurt and a secluded family cottage on beautiful grounds with extra special food and wine.  Since it was October, it was too cold for the unheated pool but that didn’t matter.  It’s one of those sites where the modesty of the neighboring village masks the broad place waiting on the other side of the narrow gate.  

The abundance of indoor and outdoor common space with fruit trees, a working vegetable garden, an honesty bar and an open fire in the lounge area all make if feel more like a home away from home than a hotel.   Most of the year it is adults only but children are welcome on selected family weeks and always welcome in the family cottage.  We were there during a family week in two of the rooms.   I booked way in advance as the place does fill up especially during summer when the whole place if often booked out for destination weddings.  A generous breakfast is included and delicious three course set dinners are offered five nights a week.  The dinners were so tasty and relaxed (ie the boys could head up to bed on their own when they were tired allowing us to finish the long meal with an espresso), we ended up eating in three of the four nights.

In terms of activities, we spent every day discovering a new beach and then landing in a beach town or white hill town for lunch.   We spent one day walking miles on the long, straight golden sands of El Palmar Beach known for surfing and wind-based watersports.

We spent another day in the small but gorgeous cliff faced beach of Los Canos de Meca.

And we spent a third day in what might be the best beach we’ve seen in continental Europe, the coastal village and beach of Bolonia.  Bolonia is about a 45 minute drive from where we were staying and only 20km north of the popular destination of Tarifa

Bolonia has been voted one of Europe’s top 25 beaches on Trip Advisor but it’s mostly only known to Spanish tourists.  Here’s why Bolonia is so fab:

  • Geography is in its favor.  Bolonia sits within Estrecho National Park.  From the main highway, you need to drive 7km to get there.  There is no drive through traffic making it like a Greek island without having to take a ferry. 
  • With a population of only 117, there is little nearby accommodation which means it is unspoiled and not commercialized.  Military land nearby will insure further development won’t happen.
  • Yet, it’s not entirely remote.  There are no chairs or services on the beach but there are enough restaurants and bars, a few small grocery stores, and surfboards to hire to make it possible to spend the whole day there.   It’s also a popular place for camper vans to overnight.  It gets busy on the weekends and we heard the summer months do get crowded.
  • The beach itself has everything.  It is equally good for wading and waves.  The sand is soft and golden.   It’s a destination spot for water sports and leisure.  It’s long enough for a walk or run. 
  • The setting is gorgeous.  The beach has a natural cove on one end and is surrounded by huge white sand dunes which spread out into a forest of pine trees on the other end.  There is something good for the soul about running up and tumbling down sand dunes.
  • Not only can you look out over views of the channel between Spain & Africa, but just to show off its excellence behind the beach are some Roman ruins you can explore.  You don’t see that in Florida.

We didn’t make it to Tarifa but that would be a worthwhile day trip with more time.  As would a visit back to Zahara de los Atunes, the place where I first met and feel in love with Cadiz.  We flew into Jerez, the nearest airport, where we hired a car and drove 50 minutes to Casa La Siesta.  If you had more time, I would recommend that you fly into Seville to spend a couple of days there and then hire a car from Seville and drive 1.5 hours to Casa La Siesta. 

If countryside cortijos and wild beaches are your travel brand ... Cadiz might be worth a look see/sea.

Road Trip through Spain

Of all the trips I’ve planned none has been more involved than last summer’s almost three week road trip through Spain.   What made it complicated beyond fitting five people, two bikes and weeks of stuff in our small car was the fact that my sister and her family would be traveling from the US to join us for two of the weeks and my husband would need to fly back and forth for work.  Multi-stop logistics are not my strong suit but expectant company and employed spouses have a way of bringing out the best in you.  (In case it was troubling you, the first logistic was telling my sister she would need to also rent a car.)

It was indeed a fabulous, memorable trip in every way.  We covered a lot of ground from the Basque Country up North, through Madrid and down to Andalucía and back home to Luxembourg.   Before this trip Spain had already won my heart as my most favorite European country but this three week route confirmed how much there is to love about Spain’s dramatic scenery, delicious food and special places to stay. 

Everything just worked.   Hunting down antibiotics in rural Andalucia took a little more work.  Parking in central Madrid, with bikes on the car, both did not work and was a very bad idea.  Otherwise the trip, which included my brother in law running with the bulls in Pamplona, was without incident.  My sister and her family got the tour through Spain they were hoping for, my husband made all his trains and planes, and I did not ditch the bikes in Madrid.

The guidebooks can more than adequately fill in all the details of the places we visited.  The “genius” (if there was one to the trip) was the itinerary.   Aside from a marathon first and last day of driving from Luxembourg to the border of Spain, each day was a manageable amount of driving. You could also do this trip in less than 3 weeks.

The Itinerary

Here is the interactive map of our trip minus the first and last long haul days across France.  The red markers are places we stayed and the yellow markers are places we made day trips to.  The blue line is the driving route we took between our lodging hubs.  Below the map is the order of our home base stops with the "+" for easy day trips from each one.

A. BASQUE & Navarre REGION (Larrasoana)

We started the trip by meeting my sister and her family in the North of Spain.  We drove from Luxembourg and they rented a car in Barcelona and drove about 5 hours to Larrasoana. Larrasoana is a small village town located at the base of the Pyrenees (some of us biked the mountains), on the second stage of the Camino de Santiago (some of us walked a portion of the route and met a new wonderful Spanish friend) and 15 minutes from Pamplona.  We rented a village house on Airbnb large enough for all of us with a nearaby jai alai court for indoor wiffle ball competitions, sisters included.

This is the villa house on Airbnb we rented.

+ Pamplona

The capital city of northern Spain's Navarre province.  We were there in July during the multi-day festival of the Running of the Bulls (Fiesta de San Fermín). One of us was brave enough to run.  The rest of us enjoyed the countdown.

+ San Sebastian

The gorgeous, gastronomic resort town in the mountains and on the Bay of Biscay in Basque Country.  One day trip wasn't enough time to enjoy the beach promenades and pintxo bars so we came back for another day on the drive home.  San Sebastian would make for a better home base but because our group was large and biking in the Pyrenees was a priority we made the village house choice.

+ Zarautz/Getaria

A beach town and a fishing village near San Sebastian. I had been obsessing about wanting to get to Getaria for over a year ...and then people rushed me.

b. Burgos

A stopover on the 5 hour drive from Larrasoana to Madrid is the provincial town of Burgos with few tourists and a beautiful French Gothic Cathedral. 

c.  MADRID

Most non-Europeans flock to Barcelona but most Europeans love Madrid.  Madrid requires a post all its own but if truth be told we didn't do enough of Madrid for me to give it its proper due but it's a place I'd like to visit again.

We rented an Airbnb apartment in the center of Madrid which used to be an old convent.  In terms of quality, location and value, I highly recommend this rental.  For parking, it's a beast.

This is the Airbnb apartment we rented.

d.  ANDALUCIA REGION/CARCABUEY

We then drove 4.5 hours from Madrid to the Cordoba region of Andalucia for some pool time and relaxation.

We rented a villa in the heart of the a natural park near the small town of Carcabuey through Rustic Blue.  Summer villa rentals on Rustic Blue do require a Saturday to Saturday stay.  You can read my post on "Tips for Renting a Villa in Europe" for more information on how I found this one.

This is the villa we rented through Rustic Blue.

+ Toledo

On the way to Carcabuey the walled old city of Toledo is an easy stopover for lunch.

+ Cordoba

Córdoba and famous La Mezquita mosque is 90 minutes away for an easy day trip.  (One day tripper was a little hot and tired in Cordoba...)

+ Granada

No trip to Andalucia would be complete without a trip to the historic city of Granada and the beautiful Alhambra. It was even more beautiful than we imagined and we had the benefit of meeting up with Spanish friends (my son's girlfriend and her family) who shared their knowledge and history with us.

e.  near madrid/ALCUNEZA

After our day in Granada my sister and her family flew home out of Madrid, our oldest son went to spend a week with his girlfriend's family on the southern Coast of Spain and we took our time driving home.  I picked a few special places to sample on our way back.

The first place was a lovely flour mill turned luxury hotel an hour North of Madrid in Alcuneza.  Parking was much better.  This isn't a place to go out of your way to but it's a a great overnight alternative to staying in Madrid.  We stumbled on a spectacular gorge carved out by the Rio Dulce near Siguenza.

Here's the small hotel we stayed at.

f.  near san sebastian/BIDANIA

The second stop was a countryside hotel called Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania 20 minutes from San Sebastian.  This would be a nice place for an overnight after staying a few days in San Sebastian.

Here's the small countryside hotel we stayed at.

G.  ILE DE RE (France)

The third and last stop was at La Baronnie Hotel & Spa in Ile de Rey's main town of Saint Martin.  This place is France's own version of the Hamptons with miles and miles of flat cycling paths designed with families in minds, quaint villages and beaches.  This island connected to the mainland by bridge deserves it's own trip.

Here's the quaint hotel we stayed at.

Tips for Renting a villa in Europe

Years ago I overheard someone in Seattle talking about their plans to rent a villa in Italy for a week with friends.   Thick in the vortex of the child rearing years and booking out friend dinners three miles away two months in advance I remember thinking “who does that?” and “how… could…you…possibly…” Then I gagged on my not-so-jolly rancher.  

There’s something about the word “villa” that sounds obnoxious and faux European.   Add in Italy and now you’ve created a puddle of Chianti-stained jealousy around you and your friends, all of whom must be the lucky ones with more than 2 weeks of vacation to burn. 

Even if you had the money and time, the thought of planning that kind of vacation seemed daunting and completely out of reach.  I never asked how the trip went but I did file the idea away for later.  I assumed the later would be when I turned 50, when my children fled the nest, or when I sold my screenplay for villa money. 

Then of course I moved to Europe three years ago and became that “someone” who talks about renting villas and then posts pictures of them.  I’ve become that person who no doubt has given you occasions to gag, wonder and lament.  I know this and am sorry for it so please only read on if you’re not in a place of wanting to poke me in the eye. 

My intention is to share what I’ve learned about renting a villa in Europe in a way that could be helpful to those thinking about a trip or aspiring to one in the future.   Most people think about a pan European trip where they travel from big city to big city but if you want to give yourself space to more fully experience the culture, it’s worth considering carving out a portion of your trip for the countryside. 

One important bit of clarification that would have been helpful to me those years ago in Seattle:  When people in Europe say “villa” they are really saying “detached house.”  You need not have sold a screenplay or a company to be villa eligible.  There is a sliding luxury scale from mansion villas with cooks included to modest 2 bedroom villas where linens aren’t always included.  The thing they do generally share in common is that they are somewhere in the countryside where the slow life happens and you really get the chance to use your rusty French, Spanish, Italian or speak the language of hand motions. 

Here then are a few things to consider if you are thinking about renting a villa in Europe:

1.  Most people think about villas in France and Italy and for good reason.  They have a robust rental market and the countryside is full of provincial towns and farmers markets (especially in France) during the summers.  You have to work harder to find villas to rent in Spain that aren’t on the crowded and much less interesting Costa del Sol.  There are lots of websites out there doing villa rentals but the ones I have used are Pure France for France, Tuscany Now for Italy, and Rustic Blue for Spain.  Whatever website you use there is value in having a company that acts as the intermediary between you and the owner and a company that has visited all their properties.  Most of the villas you will find to rent are second homes.

France, exhibit A. (my favorite of all the rentals we have done is this one)

2.  Wherever you choose, you will be driving there.   Of course you can rent a car in Rome, Paris, or Madrid but consider taking a cheap intra-country flight to get closer to your villa and rent a car out of smaller airport which would be easier and potentially cheaper. 

3.  Travel in any month but July or August if you can.  Prices are highest when demand is highest in July and August and you can often get rates 20-30% cheaper in May, June, September, October.  Many US schools get out in mid-June and so if you are school dependent, my strong advice would be to do your Europe travel and villa rental the last two weeks of June if possible.  Most villa rentals also require a Saturday-Saturday stay but may offer some flexibility in the off-season months.

France, exhibit B. ( I loved the summer kitchen in this one.)

4.  Travel with a group.  Generally speaking, the bigger the villa, the more amenities you get.  Many of the villas available to rent are geared towards large parties and we all know how math works.  Two families or a group of friends splitting the cost of one villa opens up a lot more options.   Honestly it doesn’t take much to get the per night charge cheaper than a hotel rate in a big city.

Spain, exhibit C. (a group trip example of remote but excellent villa with promixmity to Granada and Cordoba.)

5.  Book early.  You can find available villas anytime but the good ones get plucked up early, especially the smaller and more affordable ones.  I try to book mine in November for the following summer. 

6.  Pick a villa that is further inland or in a region you’ve heard less about.   You’ll pay top dollar in Tuscany and Provence.  Umbria and Dordogne are lesser known but just as charming regions.   The prices go up the closer you are to the water but given that most villas won’t be directly on the beach who cares if you have to drive 45 minutes or 15 minutes if you get a nicer villa further out.  If they say "remote" they do mean it so just make sure you are prepared for what that entails in terms of eating and necessities.

7.  Pick a villa and then map out what you can see in day trips from there.  Almost anywhere you go in France or Italy will have more options for day trips than you could do in a week.  In Dordogne you can even get to the Basque region in Spain for a day trip.  You can find listings of summer farmers markets online and if in France almost be guaranteed a daily market within a 25 km radius.  It’s great to have dinner out in a city but when you are in the French or Italian countryside, it’s better to have lunch out when you are day tripping and then have dinner in.  You’ll also save money on food and wine if you eat most of your dinners in.  I don’t think that’s just my age talking …

8.  Prioritize the outdoor space.    It’s easy to get taken with beautiful interiors but if you are renting during the summer months you should put more of a premium on the outdoor space.   The pool is an easy one to focus on but I also pay attention to the outdoor eating area, the views, and the proximity of neighbors.   If you are choosing to be in the countryside, setting matters a lot.

9.  Pick a villa that is private but walkable to a village.   They aren’t always easy to find but when you find a villa that has lovely outdoor space with privacy AND is walkable to a village, book it!  There’s something about walking into a village for a coffee or baguette that never ever gets old…

10.  Study the reviews closely.  Most people say generally positive things but you can often tell when a place is “fine” and when it’s “truly special” by the tone of the reviews.  “Thanks for a great holiday” is not a review, it’s a warning.  

11.  Look for newly added villas.  This can be a risk because you won’t have reviews but sometimes you can find a gem before the word gets out.  That happened with this one where we were the first renters and now it is almost fully booked for this upcoming summer.

12.  Look for the cheapest villas on the high end rental sites.  Sometimes I will troll on higher end villa sites looking for their smallest properties as you know the quality will be there but the smaller size may not appeal to those looking for a reunion sized villa.

Travel Quiz: Is this destination right for you?

Most of us love a beach.  Here’s a summer beach holiday worth looking into if …

1.       “Unspoilt” is not a scary word.  Zahara de los Atunes is on 20 km of white sandy beautiful coastline along the Atlantic (Costa de la Luz) in Southwest Spain without a through road and still free of high rise condos.   It is much less well known than the popular with Brits, highly developed area of the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean. 

2.       You lean towards authentic and away from resort.   Zahara is a true beach destination not a glammed up resort town catering to sun seeking Europeans.   You’ll find way fewer sunbeds per capita, but have more chance of soaking up the culture. (And feel completely safe I might add as an American woman traveling alone with her children.)  Google it and you’ll see that most of the available information/reviews are in Spanish.  We literally heard a language other than Spanish only a handful of times.

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3.       Laying on a beach qualifies as an activity.  Trip Advisor lists 5 activities you can do in Zahara and all of them are located on the beach.  Flying a kite is one of them.

4.       You underpacked.  Shorts, tee-shirts, flip flops, tanning lotion, and bikini top (optional).  If anywhere in Zahara had a dress code, no one was abiding it.  You can even drip dry while eating lunch in the sand at one of the beach shack chiringuitos, which you will definitely want to do because you should miss no meal while in Zahara.  

5.       You have hyper sensitive feet.  Beautiful clear sand combined with winds to keep it cool mean you can look cool getting from beach towel to the water’s edge.

6.       You have modest surfing aspirations.  The wind was good enough for body surfing (without significant undertow), but didn’t seem strong enough for surfing.  Most serious surfers go 30 km further south to Tarifa.

7.       You’ve seen photos of beach running in Runner’s World and made a plan.   Zahara’s one main beach is wide, flat and 9 km long – a dream beach for walking or running at low tide.  With a beach that long, you also won’t feel bad about carving out your own full size beach volleyball/soccer pitch.   

8.       You like tuna.   Zahara is the tuna capital of the world and it’s served on every menu, but the preparations are even more varied and delicious than you could imagine.  Red tuna is the specialty.

9.       You like to walk to tuna.  There are 70 or so restaurants in Zahara, all within walking distance.  You don’t have to be choosy as the eating is categorically amazing and affordable.  The driving and parking is less than amazing, so leave your car as soon as you arrive.

10.   You probably already live in Europe.   Zahara remains “unspoilt” in part because it’s not easy to access.  Only small planes, most coming from Madrid, fly into the airport of Jerez which is a little more than an hour’s drive to Zahara.   The next nearest airport is in Seville. 

11.   You’ve been to Barcelona and now have a thing for Spain.  Zahara will only make you like it that much more. 

More Salt, Please

More Popsicle, please.    

More Popsicle, please.

 

If you ever find yourself in a Spanish grocery store, you should know “bicarbonato de sodio” is not salt.   Don’t be misled by the salt shaped vessel it’s in or that it’s on the same shelf as the pepper.   That superfine salt that you think you are buying and then dumping into a darling Moroccan salt container is actually baking soda.   Baking soda in a never-seen-in-the-US- type consistency.  (It looked like salt, really.  You must believe me.)

We discovered this on Day 6 of our six day trip to Spain.  Six dinners spiked with bicardonato de sodio.  As you might expect, this substitution not only doesn’t season your food – it makes everything taste slightly off.  Everyone noticed but the teenager.  He appreciated whatever I did in the kitchen, as long as there was sufficient quantity and dessert to follow.  When we outed our mistake (finally tasting the chemical substance in the lovely Moroccan container), Lawton tried to soothe the week of unsavory food disappointment by offering: “At least the pepper was good.”

Hrumph.  All that good food wasted (or at a minimum not enjoyed in the way it was intended) because of one lousy ingredient.  A lousy ingredient we kept pouring on in increasing amounts, desperate for a flavor pop.  You can have all the makings of a perfect meal – the finest ingredients (our investments), the best cookbook (our education), a well equipped kitchen (our friends and family), cookery skills (10,000 hours) – but without a bit of salt (daily gratitude) – it’s all a bit flat, eh?  Pepper (adventure) is indeed good, but we need a little splash of salt to bring out the flavor of what’s already there. 

Beyond using Google Translate (which I do regularly when I grocery shop at home) or thinking back harder on my high school Spanish, I should have known about the bicardonato de sodio in another way.  The baking soda was expensive, and sold in a much smaller container.   Salt is cheap, and is sold in the big bags.  Daily gratitude too doesn’t cost much, but it useful in so many ways than you’ll want to super-size it. 

I almost lost my salt when we arrived in Spain.  This was my first trip traveling with the boys in Europe by myself.  To compensate for the solo parent travel jitters, I decided to go back to a place we’d been before – the small white village of Guaro in the mountains of Andalucia, Spain.  We found some ridiculously cheap plane tickets on Ryan Air which happened to match up with the only available summer dates in my happy-place-away-from-home.   Since Quinn had missed our trip in May, and we had all missed the sun that week, I resolved to follow Chris Stewart’s example of optimism and come back to Andalucia to “Drive Over Lemons” – this time in the heat.

Easy to be an Optimist here. 

Easy to be an Optimist here. 

Morning world!

Morning world!

The flight was smooth, the deplaning was not.  Think cat and bull dog fighting in a sweltering 100% full airplane, with four carry-ons, and a preoccupied Master wondering how strict the Spanish are about renting a car to someone who forgot their driver’s license.  Turns out they are very strict.   There are details/excuses on how this oversight happened, none of which has yet to be received with a nod of “Oh yeah, totally happened to me too.”  But before the Master completely lost it, she had the benefit of muzzled judgment by her loved ones, an available and helpful US DMV employee(!), and a soft-hearted, US friendly Hertz agent.  Not sure if they Hertz guy took pity on my situation or was weakened by the 10 year old stare down, but I eventually got the car.  Even better?  I got the experience of having my 15 year old be the voice of calm.   He is such his father’s son, and I am glad for it.

My intention for this trip was to relax, not go go.  We had seen a lot of Andalucia on our May trip, and for this trip I wanted the boys to see the bottom of the pool.   I was also a little timid about driving around too much - the whole not having a license thing combined with my natural navigation challenges.   Marvelously, with the exception of one day trip to the thoroughly-researched Aqualand Torremolinos water park and another day trip to the beach town of Marbella, the boys were on my same page.  It helped that the Tour de France was in full swing (and available in English on Sky TV!) and that the place just up the road from us was a B&B run by a Dutch Spaniard who happened to have a fleet of five rental bikes.  Two of the five bikes fit the boys perfectly.   The sun and hills zapped their energy pretty quickly, but it was a boon for them to be able to ride by themselves on the country mountain roads and for me to not have to figure out how to transport bikes on the rental car that surely had been flagged by authorities.  (Not really, but so goes my imagination which also flares around noises in the night and snakes in my bed.)

Watching the Tour.  Notice games Mommy brought on table.    

Watching the Tour.  Notice games Mommy brought on table.   

Rented bikes, for them hills. 

Rented bikes, for them hills. 

The water park was an unexpected wave of fun for even me.  My intention was to read in the shade, but instead I locked up my Kindle and bounded down (most) of the slides with my kiddos.   Only one of my children did ALL the rides.  It was not the oldest one; it was the middle one who had done the exhaustive water park research and also the ATV research in Greece.  The beach was a bit of a letdown (in some cases two), but only because we were so spoiled by the beaches of Greece.   The rest of the days – sidelined by a blister that prevented my hypochondriac Lawton from walking normally and kept him shrieking regularly – we stayed close to home.  No one protested the pace. 

The boys jumped in the pool about 25 times a day.  We worked out on the terrace.  We wore clothes sparingly.  We read, we listened to audiobooks to keep the car quiet as I drove.  We played games.  No, that’s not right, I brought games.  They played games on the iPad and their phones.   They glued themselves to the Tour on the TV, while I glued myself to the couch on the terrace.  They didn’t sleep enough, but who does in summer.  We laughed and we all got along really well.   We ate M&M’s and I drank Diet Coke because my husband wasn’t there.  It was a little bit of Seattle summer by the pool, plus the view.  In a different mind space, it could have seemed like a “boring” vacation but it wasn’t because we all CHOOSE to shake our salt shakers together. 

When you don't feel like finishing dinner, make an M&M mustache. 

When you don't feel like finishing dinner, make an M&M mustache. 

We also ate every meal outside, and though they were tasteless, this view – and the relaxation of this happy place for all four of us – was better than a box of chocolates.  And I really like chocolate.

Maybe
 opening one's heart has something to do with studying the landscape of 
your life.   With all its peaks and valleys; with things in the 
foreground, the distance and over the mountain; with areas of pattern, 
stretches of free form, and  pockets of unruly messes; with the 
thousands of unique experiences that have taken root; celebrating the 
beautiful mosaic that is only your life and realizing that your neighbor
 is over the hill looking at a different but equally divine vista.

Maybe opening one's heart has something to do with studying the landscape of your life.  With all its peaks and valleys; with things in the foreground, the distance and over the mountain; with areas of pattern, stretches of free form, and  pockets of unruly messes; with the thousands of unique experiences that have taken root; celebrating the beautiful mosaic that is only your life and realizing that your neighbor is over the hill looking at a different but equally divine vista.

Beautiful Spain

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Almost everything in Europe is accessible by plane in less than 3 hours.   With a Monday holiday and a missed holiday day from the previous week, we jumped on the chance to spend a long weekend in Southern Spain.  We flew into Malaga direct from Luxembourg, rented a car, and drove 45 minutes to the small town of Guaro.  Wanting a driving not beach vacation, we decided to stay inland and explore Southern Spain in a number of day trips.  Situated in the province of Malaga just a short 30 minutes from the coastal resort town of Marbella, Guaro is a small (2,500 people) “white village" in the Sierra Nieves Mountains.  There are orange, almond, and olive trees everywhere the eye can see in the part lush/part arid landscape of tightly compacted hills. The landscape mixed with the abundance of delicious (and cheap) food is my idea of heaven.

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Andalucía was everything we hoped it would be -  except warm.    I will refrain from complaining, but suffice it to say that the boys went to a water park one of the days where the max capacity reached twelve.  Upside: no line for the Labyrinth of Slides.  Downside: unheated pools of water to greet you on a mid 50s kind of day.  Teeth chattering aside, the boys loved it.

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That was the day I stayed back at the villa.  This villa.  Now you can see why I opted out of the Kamikaze Slide.  I re-read “Driving over Lemons” by Chris Stewart, went for a walk, and picked up a two liter bottle of olive oil from the Guaro village co-op.  If ever you are thinking of a trip to Southern Spain and want a village experience, I would highly recommend staying here.   It's perfectly located, wonderfully comfortable and the owner Andrew is a well-published travel writer and writes a blog about Andalucia.  It’s an AMAZING blog and full of great information about the area.  Read with caution as you will be dying to come for a visit -- we only scratched the surface.

Thinking back on our wonderful five days, three special images come to mind:

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1) Being in GAURO on a Saturday morning for a May festival that involved carrying a statue of Jesus (or a patron saint?) through the village streets and to the river.  Andrew told us about it, and it was one of the trip's highlights.  We were the only people in the whole village who didn't understand what was happening, but we gladly joined in the celebratory walk through town.  There's something about witnessing a tradition that goes back generations and seeing an entire village coming together that makes you wish you lived in a town where everybody knows your name.

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2) Having lunch in the hilltop town of CASARABONELA (thanks to Andrew's recommendation) -- devouring some nearby chicken, iberico pork chop, and lamb cooked in a simple wood oven and watching your children do a dance with the local kids.  A game of tag which leads to a game of soccer which leads to a conversation of hand gestures and lots of smiles.   

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3.  Stopping in EL BURGO on the way to RONDA in search of a special wood bowl and meeting Vincenzo -- a man who shares the same name and hometown of Sicily as my maternal grandfather!  Vincenzo walked me all over town in search of Jose -- the town's finest bowl maker. First to Jose's sister in law's shop, who sent us on foot to Jose's brothers house, who then escorted us to Jose's house where Jose wasn't home but his wife was. Still in her robe. No mind, after a quick change , she took me down to Jose's shop where where I found a beautiful bowl still fresh with oil. The kind of hand made bowl and the walk to find it that money simply can't buy.  Vincenzo gave me his number in hopes that I'll come back for a visit.

And we will.  I already have booked tickets back to Guaro for a week in July.  This time just me and the three boys while Brett says home to work.  I know Quinn is going to love this place as much as we all did.

Here are all the photos of the trip.

Barcelona Recommendations

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I just wrote up a list of Barcelona recommendations for a friend of a friend, so thought I would share it here too in case anyone else has a trip in mind.   Brett has many more restaurant recommendations from his work trips there, but the list below are some highlights.

LODGING

The metro in Barcelona is easy to use and fast.  Given that, you can stay in lots of different parts of the city and still not need a car.  We bought the 10 pass card and then replenished as needed.   We also used taxis occasionally.  You don’t need to rent a car.

Hotel Praktik Rambla - Rambla de Cataluña, 27 08007 Barcelona 08007 Barcelona

We love, love this chic boutique hotel.  Brett always stays here and he has gotten a lot of Amazon people to stay there over the years.  It’s a great, comfortable hotel (with reliable wifi!)  and wonderfully located.  The boutique hotel is just a few minutes’ walk away from spectacular monuments and places to visit such as: La Pedrera, the Batlló house, the Paseo de Gracia, Las Ramblas or the Plaza Cataluña, Barcelona’s nerve center. It is between the two busiest metro stops – Cataluyna and Passeig de Gracia so easy to get back to from almost any metro line.  The hotel isn’t really suited to kids, although we did stay there with ours.

If you are travelling with kids, I’d recommend checking out Airbnb to rent an apartment.  We and others we know have had great success with Airbnb though not specifically in Barcelona.

SITES

La Boqueria – Mercat St. Joseph on the Ramblas

We’re not fans of La Ramblas.  If you are from Seattle, it’s like walking the Waterfront.  Fun to see once for the entertainment but you have to be careful of pick pockets and gypsies particularly around there.  Very touristy.    However, the market off the Ramblas is a can’t miss.  It is the most amazing market I’ve ever seen - -huge and vibrant.  You’ll only wish you had a kitchen so you can cook.  There are pre-made smoothies at all the fruit stands that are great to sip on while walking around.  There are also a number of places to sit at a bar and eat fresh food – we’ve never done it, but have wanted to.  It’s hard to find a seat usually.  Pick up some nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, olive oils, and saffron to bring home.

La Sagrada Familia – Carrer de Mallorca 401

In the Eixample neighborhood.  Gaudi’s church is the most visited site in all of Spain.  You have to see it.  And spend the money to tour the inside and towers – it’s worth it.  The lines move fast so don’t be discouraged if the line is long (it will be.)  Pay the extra for the audio tour.  They have one for adults and one for kids. 

Park Guell & Gracia neighborhood

This is Gaudi’s hillside park.  The landscape design is unlike anything you’ve seen.  Definitely worth going to.  While you are there, check out the bohemian Gracia neighborhood.

El Poble Espanyol-in the Montjuic neighborhood

My friend Grechen told us about this place for our first visit.  It’s off the beaten track and something to do if you have more than 3 days in the city.  It costs to get in.   From Gretchen: “El Poble was created for the 1929 International Exhibition to showcase architecture and crafts of each region in Spain.  It’s a mini village, filled with gorgeous handmade items – ceramics, glass, leather (buy belts!).  And the main square has several nice restaurants for casual meals.” 

FC Barcelona sports campus

All the professional teams in Barcelona play in one large campus.  We saw a FC Barcelona basketball game, but obviously FC Barcelona Soccer is the big team in town.  Definitely get tickets in advance of your trip.  It’s a great way to do sports all in one central location and it’s worth poking around even if you don’t go to a game.  The basketball game was great fun, so may be a worthy back up if you can’t get soccer tickets.

Tibidabo mountain, church, and amusement park

Further out of the city is a church on the top of a hill called Tibidabo.  You take the subway, a trolley, and then a funicular to get to the top.  The church is nice, not amazing, but the views are worth the trip up.  Only go if it’s a clear day when you can enjoy the views.  There are some really nice houses on the way up the mountain to look at.   Also, there is a mini amusement park at the top that is fun for the kids – about 20 rides geared towards kids ages 12 and under.  Our boys loved it, and with the views – we didn’t mind either.  Bring a picnic if you plan to spend a day up there as food options aren’t great.  There are a few rides that you can go on without paying for the amusement park.  There wasn’t any tourists in the amusement park as it’s not talked about much in the guide books.

Barceloneta & Beach

You have to see the Mediterranean Sea up close and the beach along it is really nice.  Also check out the spit of land called Barceloneta which is a traditional Mediterranean fishing village.  It feels different – more working class – than the rest of Barcelona.

Montjuic

If it’s a nice day, this is a great walk up a mountain with parks and gardens along the way.  There is a castlefort at the summit.  Fun if you are looking to see some good views and get in a good walk.

Museu de Xocolata – Chocolate museum in La Ribera neighborhood.

This is a fun tour to see the history of chocolate as well as whimsical chocolate sculptures.  Colin and I went for an hour one afternoon.  It was fun, but wouldn’t describe as a must see.

Museu d’Art Contemporani – in the Ravel neighborhood. 

This is Barcelona’s version of Paris’s Centre Pompidou.  Brett and Lawton went, and it was good but they wouldn’t describe it as can’t miss. 

Fundacio Joan Miro – We didn’t go, but wanted to.  It’s on our list for next time.

Museu Picasso – Old Town. We didn’t go, but wanted to.  It’s on our list for next time.

RESTAURANTS

The Spanish eat late.  Most restaurants don’t open until 8pm, and are the busiest at 10pm.  A lot of restaurants are closed on Sundays, so plan accordingly.  We never found a great paella – which by the way, is generally only eaten for lunch.  If you find some, let us know!

La Pepita - Carrer Còrsega, 343, Tel. 93 238 48 93

This is one of our two favorites.  In Eixample neighborhood.  More contemporary tapas.  Reservations required.  This restaurant is highly reviewed on Trip Advisor, so there will be tourists there but the food is special.  Sophie the Chef’s wife runs the front of the restaurant – she speaks good English – and she was incredibly warm. She let the boys tour the kitchen and sign their tile wall.  Don’t miss.

Tapas 24 - 269 Diputacio

This is our other favorite. Also in Eixamble neighborhood.  Very small restaurant with well done and slightly different tapas.  They don’t take reservations.  Get there early!  Sitting at the bar is fun to watch them make food and order what you see.  Don’t miss this place either. 

Margarita Blue -   c/ Josep Anselm Clavé, 6

Close to Las Ramblas.  Mexiterranean restaurant and cocktail bar.  We ate here when we wanted a change of pace from tapas.  Food is good, cocktails are excellent.   It’s also a hangout for local musicians, so go on a night when there’s live music.  It was packed every time we were there.  Great vibe.  Unlike other bars, kids are welcome in restaurant area.

La Rambla 31 - Carrer de la Diputacio 253, 08007

In the Eixamble neighborhood, a ½ block from our hotel.  This is the bakery we went to every morning.  It’s great.  Packed with locals.  Everything is delicious.  There whole wheat croissants (croissant integral) is unique.  Small area to eat in.  You pay at the register and sit down.  Coffee is fine, but generally Spanish coffee is weaker.

Ciudad Condal – Rambla de Catalunya 18, 08007

In the Eixamble neighborhood, across the street from our hotel.  This is a very well-known traditional tapas place.  If you are from Seattle, it reminds me of The Met.  It’s well established – lots of people in suits and always bustling.  We usually have our first meal here.

Filferro - sant Carles 29 in Barceloneta

We stumbled on this place while walking around Barceloneta and it was great for lunch.  It’s a fun, funky neighborhood place with outdoor seating that was filled with locals.  Best fresh tuna salad I had while I was there.  Not a single tourist.

Forn Boix - Carrer de l'Hospital, 20, 08001 in El Raval neighborhood

Great bakery in El Raval neighborhood .  Great sweet and savory things to choose from.  No seating, just grab and go.  Always busy.  There might be two locations.

SHOPPING

There is an underwear shop on every corner, so ladies – if you need to stock up on lingerie, Barcelona is your place.  There are also tons of boutique shops.  It is a great city for clothes shopping.

Raval , Born, Barri Gotic neighborhoods

Fun streets to roam and shop.  All non chain types of stores on small, narrow cobblestone streets.  Raval has one of a kind shops.  Barri Gotic neighborhood for crafts and antiques .  All these small side streets have great graffiti.  We had fun with kids and pictures will all the graffiti.

Desigual – multiple locations

Fun Spanish, bright clothes for men, women and children.  It is very distinctive clothing and the Spanish love Desigual.  It is like their version of Gap.  Stores are everywhere, but pop into several of them as selections are slightly different between locations (especially with children’s clothing.)  Great sales.  Desigual is available in the US, but prices are much better in Spain.  We always spend some money here. 

Camper – multiple locations

Great shoes for men and women.  Stores are everywhere.  Stylish and comfortable and not too expensive.  Brett and I get a pair or two every time we visit.  You can get Camper shoes in the US, but there are more styles available in their home country.  Also a small children’s section. 

Vaho Gallery – multiple locations

Fun recycled messenger bags, purses, wallets, etc.  in all shapes and sizes. Stores are everywhere.  Most of the bags have Barcelona on them somewhere.  Fun souvenir to bring back.

See all Barcelona Photos.

Work in Progress

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The boys and I arrived in soggy Barcelona last Thursday.  I arrived with three European sized suitcases and two happy children in tow all by my own self.  Brett had been there all week for a busy work conference and so we decided to take the kids out of school for a few days and crash Brett’s hotel room.   It’s one thing to family crash in a big hotel, but quite another in a forty room boutique hotel.  For example:  when your children insist on taking the scarce elevator upstairs to the first floor.  However, Brett has been a loyal customer of La Pratik Rambla for five consecutive years now and has sent a lot of Amazon business their way, so they were happy to make an exception allowing the four of us to stay in one room.  By the second day, they knew to up the resupply of toilet paper.  By the first two minutes, I knew it was a mistake to let the nine year old pack himself.    

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I intended to do some pre-work with the boys by having them research La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s famous Basilica.  I have a friend here in Luxembourg who has her kids write a brief synopsis on a site they plan to go visit in advance of the trip.  The thinking being that the more the kids know in advance, the more interested they’ll be when they see it in person.  It sounded like such a good idea (and it is a good idea), but in execution it felt a little like spiking the kids’ orange juice with Aloe Vera juice.  It was an obvious, medicinal “I know what’s good for you” overture.  Extra, unassigned writing for a nine year old boy is something that requires a long runway and a convincing sales pitch.  I had neither.  And uninspiring YouTube clips of La Sagrada Familia weren’t helping.   I concluded that it must work better with daughters, or with families who played more Trivial Pursuit than Battleship.  The boys did however study up on the FC Barcelona Basketball team as we got tickets in advance to watch our first Euro Basketball game.  Ah-ha! So that’s the ticket.  Maybe it would have been a better idea to let them pick the thing they want to do pre-work on.

I, on the other hand, did study up on La Sagrada Familia and within an hour of our arrival determined that Friday would be the day that we would all go see it and we would see it WITH GOOD ATTITUDES.  Thursday night: Euro Basketball Game.  Friday: Spain’s Most Visited Monument.  And there would be no complaining, no rushing Mommy, and maybe a quiz at the end.

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There is nothing quite like seeing La Sagrada Familia in person.  Millions of people visit it each year and much has been written about it, and there is good reason for it.  Antoni Gaudi’s passions were architecture, nature, and faith and you see the intersection of those passions in his work.    There is something for everyone.   Gaudi said: “Everyone finds his things in the temple.  The peasants see the hens, the scientists the zodiac signs, the theologians the genealogy of Jesus.”  When I saw it for the first time two years ago, I was impressed by its scope but turned off by its extravagance.  It was like Tammy Fay’s make up.  Too, too much.  Seeing it from the street was enough for me.

This time, I wanted to get closer.  I was ready to hand over some Euros to get inside.  Pre-work does work! The line was long, but fast moving, and Brett got us tickets with the audio tour while I traipsed around the perimeter with my camera.  Gaudi wanted La Sagrada Familia to be the “Bible in stone.”   There are books dedicated to helping you read through the Bible in one year, so getting through La Sagrada Familia in one morning was only going to be scratching the surface.  Knowing the ambition of my goal, Brett gladly took charge of the children.

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Immediately you are reminded that this cathedral that began construction in 1882 is still far from being finished.  Scaffolding covers the Glory Façade, and ten of the eighteen planned spires are yet to be completed.  The goal is to have it completed in 2026 which will be the Centennial of Gaudi’s untimely death.   It still seems a lofty goal.   You can spend hours on the outside tracking the story of Christ’s birth in the overwhelmingly detailed Nativity Façade and of Christ’s last days in the haunting Passion Façade.  But I came this time to go inside.  Plus, it was very windy. 

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Once I entered the cathedral, I understood what all the fuss was about.  I was no longer counting towers and looking for the column supported by a tortoise.  I was experiencing what Gaudi wanted to evoke – a sense of peace.  The whole interior is a majestic exaltation of beauty.  Layered with symbolism, Gaudi used tree-like columns to convey an enormous spiritual forest where the believer feels protected and united with God.  With light filtering in and hundreds of people like me wandering through the cathedral with their audio headset on, it felt like a community of people who were “Connected, but Not Alone.”

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As I walked and listened (and the boys walked and listened on their own), I found myself thinking about how this monumental work – even with all its beauty – was still a work in progress.  That Gaudi envisioned a place so beautiful that it would take more than a lifetime, and many setbacks like the Spanish Civil War, to realize.  I also found myself thinking how wonderful it is that even unfinished things can be of use.  The church was consecrated in 2010 and is now used for religious services – scaffolding and all.  Work in progress, unfinished – some words that came back to me later in the trip when I lost my temper with my kids, when I lamented my aging body, when I wondered “what’s my next vocational chapter? – and p.s. it better be good.”

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When asked about the slow construction, Gaudi was reported to have said:  “My client is not in a hurry.”  I’m so glad God isn’t in a hurry with us either – the beautiful works of art we all are.

(See all Barcelona photos)