Barcelona and Madrid, August 27 - September 1

We surprised ourselves by settling in a bit in Barcelona. (With our continued somewhat frenetic travel pace, "settling in" means staying four nights, instead of just two or three.) There were a few reasons for our prolonged stay:
  1. Our latest "aparthotel" discovery was simply unbelievable: A two-bedroom serviced apartment done in sleek marble, complete with entryway, living room, dining room, full kitchen, huge balcony, wireless internet, in a superb location, all for a remarkably reasonable price (so reasonable we felt compelled to double-check it with the management, twice). It's the first place that's really felt like a temporary home -- maybe because we've been traveling for so long, but more likely just due to the spacious and attractive quarters.
  2. Barcelona (photo 1) is a wonderful city for tourists, with plenty of attractions to lure us out of the apartment and fill three days of sightseeing.
  3. Aside from the Pyrenees and passing through Madrid, our guidebook didn't reveal other places in northern Spain we were anxious to visit, although our research wasn't particularly thorough.
One of Barcelona's most alluring features is the profusion of buildings, rooftops, and even a park designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudi. We were captivated quickly, as most tourists are, enjoying our visits to the Sagrada Familia (photo 2, also visible in photo 1), Park Guell (photo 3), and a number of other spots. The kids promptly started evolving their very elaborate doghouse building plans (this dog thing just won't go away!) into Gaudi's distinctive style -- Tim is creating a 3D computer model using Google's Sketchup (partially completed in the screenshot below the photos), while Emily is working on a paper model and many detailed blueprints.

In Park Guell we befriended a Cuban trumpet player, who encouraged both Jennifer and Tim to take a turn (photo 4). Strangely, no money was dropped in the case when Jennifer serenaded the crowd with Purcell's Trumpet Voluntary, a departure from the Cuban's jazz tunes.

On a recurring topic, we've decided that doghouse modeling, learning a bit of several languages, visiting important sights and museums, planning travel (see below), and of course experiencing new cultures, are all so educational for the kids that we just won't worry about the dearth of formal home-schooling so far. We thought there might be a tug toward math or writing when their friends at home started school, but no luck. In fact, Emily and Tim are more happily disconnected than we expected -- they write their friends, but not all that frequently, and rarely dwell on life back home.

Staying in Barcelona longer than anticipated, then high-tailing it to Madrid, meant that our decision to prepay a rental car for our entire time in Southern France and Spain was a mistake. (Prepaying was the only way to bring the stratospheric cost of a one-way two-country rental down to something acceptable.) In Barcelona, the car sat in a parking garage almost the entire time, and we would have preferred traveling to Madrid by train, instead of driving. (The perils of Spanish highways can be seen in photo 5, although in reality the driving in Spain has generally been easy, even in the major cities.) But the car mistake is small in the big scheme of things. Planning as we go, yet traveling at a higher level than college-aged backpackers (and preferring not to waste a lot of valuable time), is bound to yield some blunders.

Many of you expressed concern about Emily's knees. We've been concerned too, finally taking some concrete action:
  1. We actually managed to see an English-speaking pediatric orthopedist in Barcelona. The good news is that, after a thorough examination and lots of questions, he concluded there's nothing seriously wrong with her knees. The bad news is they still hurt consistently on stairs, although the doctor did say it's a common problem in active kids her age. He suggested massage, and that Emily needs to feel confident that her knees are fine. Confidence isn't something Emily lacks; we're trying massage.
  2. We hired an extra mule for the trek in Morocco that Emily can ride if it comes to that -- 15 Euros a day, a pretty cheap safety net.
Although this travelog is meant to include Madrid along with Barcelona, in reality it's being posted after only a few hours in Madrid, since there may not be another convenient chance for posting. (See discussion of internet disconnectivity below.) By most reports, Madrid isn't as captivating as Barcelona, although the vibrant evening street scene suggests we may have shortchanged it a bit. Our plans for tomorrow's half-day include visits to the Plaza Mayor, and to the Royal Palace with its purported 2800 rooms.

Big-city tourism has figured fairly prominently into our trip so far, in sharp contrast to our usual travels. Long-term travel encourages destinations one wouldn't normally put at the top of one's list -- most of Europe might even fall into that category for us, but we have no regrets about choosing it. However, we now move on to more exotic locales.

From Madrid we fly to Morocco for three weeks: two days in Marrakech, a nine-day trek in the High Atlas mountains, and nine days touring the south by car (including an overnight Sahara safari, by camel). While there are certain to be internet cafes in Marrakech, it's just as certain we won't have internet during our trek, and quite possibly not during the driving tour either. So don't hold your breath waiting for the next travelog.

With the good internet access in Barcelona, we decided to plan the 1½ weeks we'll have after Morocco, before we head home for a month on October 3rd. We'll fly from Casablanca (Morocco) to Paris, where we'll spend three nights. Our flight home is from London, so we'll spend three nights there as well. We gave Emily and Tim the five nights between Paris and London, to try their hand at travel planning.

Tim's recent interest in cuckoo clocks led him to the Black Forest (cuckoo clock epicenter of the world, it turns out), and with some effort he convinced Emily it would be a good place to visit, especially when he conceded that we could spend some time at the resort area of Lake Constance as well. They soon learned that even a few days of travel can take untold hours to research and plan (and that's excluding the train from Paris, rental car, and flight to London, which Jennifer took care of). Emily was particularly downtrodden when, after spending several hours perusing hotel options near Lake Constance, Jennifer improved upon her selection in a few minutes. We convinced Emily that experience is everything, and she was soon back on the hotel booking sites. Jennifer has been the family's dedicated travel-planner for decades; Emily appears to be a budding apprentice.

Emily's becoming Jennifer's apprentice in other ways too: she's developed quite a fondness for cafe con leche, not to mention Sangria. Beverages aside, we haven't yet found a cuisine that's excited the entire family as did the food in Greece. It will be interesting to see what happens in Morocco.

Next: Marrakech, then High Atlas trek

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