Friday, December 12, 2008

Spain Pics: Round 3

Finally got the rest of the pictures together...

2008.12.06 - Barcelona

...And I'm already planning our next excursion.

Back to Business

Well, at least it is already Friday... 

JCB and I wrapped up our tour of Spain with two days in Valencia and one more night in Barcelona. Valencia was great - we stuck our feet in the Med and had a good tour of the city, but for the most part, we were pretty tired of all the travel. And since we were cashing in on Hilton points and staying in an Executive Suite with complimentary snacks and beverages in the Executive Lounge, we did just that - stayed. We rested, hung out at the hotel bar, and really just relaxed a bit. 

We made it back to Barcelona on Saturday afternoon, toured Gaudi's Park Guell, and re-visited our favorite restaurant in all of Spain , Cerveceria Catalana. It felt great to be back in Barcelona - after all of our sights, we both loved the city the most. Nevertheless, after 18 days on the road, we were ready to go home. I missed Puck and my new apartment. And JCB was really Jones-ing for a burrito from El Castillito. 

We made it home on Sunday, late in the afternoon, Pacific Time. We ordered some Thai food - I was really Jones-ing for Asian cuisine - and went to sleep around 7PM. Exhausted. But Rested. And  definitely delighted. 

Four days later, after a week of work, Asian food, and Burritos, I am ready for another vacation! Where to next?!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Spain Trip - The Quoteboard Top 20

This post will likely amuse no one but JCB and me. But here we go, in no particular order...
  1. "Yay - dah. Lleida!" - JCB, in reference to anything unexpectedly fun.
  2. "That's OK, I know you love me." - JCB, in reference to his driving.
  3. "This church as a bar!" - Nic, in reference to the cathedral in Lleida.
  4. "This isn't mass. That man is holding a sword." - Nic, in reference to a strange service.
  5. "We're back on track." - JCB, after every wrong turn.
  6. "No more eating at restaurants with signs that have fallen off." - JCB, in refernce to some Lonely Planet dining suggestions in Zaragoza that were BUNK.
  7. "I'm a gracias machine!" - JCB, on his Spanish skills.
  8. "I think I need one of those opium things." - Nic, on the cough drops in Siguenza.
  9. "Margaita pizza, por favor... No, no con jamon. Margarita!" - Nic, on reitterating that a plain pizza without ham is all that we want.
  10. "At least it's not a tapa." - Nic, on the Margarita pizza that came with ham.
  11. "Cordoba - where tortillas are tortillas." - Nic, on the first omellette being an omellette.
  12. "I can't go to sleep yet, I'm not drunk." - Nic, on sober siestas.
  13. "El coche es blanco." - JCB, responding to a taxi driver who asked him if he speaks any Spanish.
  14. "Let's hug it out." - JCB, after each argument about how to drive.
  15. "Adios, coche; hola, el mundo." - JCB, upon returning the rental car in Sevilla.
  16. "Everyone is so Euro here." - JCB, multipe times, in reference to all Spaniards.
  17. "I'm not even Catholic and this shit gets me off." - JCB, in a cathedral. (!?!)
  18. "Oh look, that looks Cathlolic!" - Nic, appealing to JCB's sightseeing interests.
  19. "You look pretty when you're drunk." - JCB to Nic.
  20. "No, I look pretty when YOU'RE drunk." - Nic to JCB.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Miercoles Madness

We were both a bit apprehensive as our taxi dropped us off at the bus stop in Granada. Planes, trains, automobiles… and now busses. But Lonely Planet did say bus travel in Spain was more economical and often faster than travel by train. But as we boarded our Alsa Supra express connection from Granada to Madrid, our apprehension quickly faded. The bus had an attendant! She greeted us warmly, passed out candies, newspapers, coffees, teas, sandwiches… And we had wifi on the bus, too, slow as it was. Most would even argue that our treatment on Alsa Supra was better than our treatment on our United flight in Economy Plus. JCB and I might be even be two of those people

The trip was a little over four hours, during which JCB played games on his iPhone and I imported pictures from the past few days of our trip. We passed through some beautiful scenery in South Central Spain, but for the most part our trip was uneventful. We arrived in Madrid ready to explore. And of course, to also eat and drink.

My how different Madrid is to me now that I’m here with someone. I gave JCB a brief tour of some places I remembered near our hotel (we stayed in Sol / Cuenca) and we even found a few things I hadn’t before seen. We dined on patatas fritas (French frieds – in vinegar and garlic) as well as pimientos de pardon (fried green peppers) in Plaza Mayor, wandered to Palacio Royal, onto Templo de Judo, then back to Plaza de Espana, where we took in a large statue of Cervantes, Don Quixote, and Sancho. By now it was after 5PM, and Madrid was bustling.

We headed back to our hotel via “Gran Via” but first stopped at Cerveceria de 100 Montaditos for Round 2 of lunch. What a great stop! This bar/sandwich stop features 1 EURO BOCADILLOS EN MIERCOLES. That’s $1.25 Tiny Sandwiches on Wednesdays. Madness! We ordered a round of jars of beer and 4 tiny sandwiches and our bill was only 6 Euros. SIX! And since tiny sandwiches didn’t really fill us up, we had another round of two more bocadillos, this time with jars of sangria. Sangria from a tap. Amazing. Only 10 Euros for one of our favorite meals in all of Spain. No joke. Que bueno!

We unsuccessfully siesta-ed that evening. Not sure why, but neither one of us could sleep. Not sleeping was not boding well for the plans we constructed over Lunch Round 2 to stay out all night in Madrid. If only Spain liked to get the party started around 9PM instead of 1AM! I’m just not a night owl these days.

But at around 10:30 PM, we sat down to dinner at another great Lonely Planet find: La Gloria de Madera. “…oh-so-stylish, oh-so-good, and oh-so-cheap.” Lonely Planet can be pretty annoying some times, and they’re not always spot on with recommendations, but this time was a direct hit. To start, we had tomato soup with fresh mozzarella. JCB had a huge lamb shank with potatoes, while I had salmon with asparagus. For dessert, we basically had ice cream, but it had amazing biscuit-spinkles and syrups and a really long name on the menu that took up two lines. Needless to say, I don’t remember what it was called. Throughout the meal we sipped a crisp Ribera del Duero (red wine). And our entire excellent meal (in Madrid!) cost only 40 Euros. Can I get another, que bueno!?!

Sleepy and satisfied, we strolled back to our hotel, past drunk Spanish college kids and other crazy Madrillenos. I wondered to myself, “When did I get so old?” But before I let it bother me, I also wondered, “When have I ever been so happy?”

And I couldn’t come up with an answer… 

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Grand Granada

For the first time without our car, we made our journey to our next town. To Granada, by train. No arguing about how fast one is driving on the highway, about the need to actually slow down so that I can actually read the Spanish signs. And of course, no getting lost. We were only on the clickety clank regional train, but it was glorious. 

We arrived in Granada around 2PM and took a taxi through the twisting, narrow streets of Granada to our hostal. Again, we were so glad to not be driving. 5 Euros later we paid our taxi and walked down the narrow alley to Hostal Lima, where we met "La Madre." La Madre was an adorable middle-aged Spanish woman who runs Hostal Lima. She does not speak English. However, she had no trouble getting her messages across to JCB and me. 

This little woman carried our bags up two flights of stairs to our quaint room. She schooled us in the use of the heater, and then instructed us to have lunch at Bodega de Antonio. She drew a map, and essentially said, "Now go." By then it was almost 3PM, and Bodega de Antonio was surely closed for siesta. We never ended up finding it. But we did have luck scarfing down a few bocadilllos and beers.

We wandered around town, noting how many snowboarding shops are in Granada. Spain's highest mountain range is pretty close by, so it makes a lot of sense. And yet again, JCB and I looked at each other thinking, "I think I could live here."

Our feelings were only further confirmed after we stopped into a cute bodega for a glass of wine and were served our first FREE tapa. Yes, Granada is the last city in Spain in which the tradition of serving a free tapa with each drink is alive. And it is awesome. We enjoyed our wine and free food, and then headed back back to the hostal for siesta.

We slept well, almost too well. Happy to again be in a double bed instead of two singles pushed together, we found it almost too hard to wake up for dinner when 9:30 PM rolled around. But then we remembered all of the free food that was headed our way, so we got dressed and set out for Plaza Nueva, one of Granada's main squares. 

Our first stop, Bodegas Castaneda, was packed with locals yelling for drinks and tapas. We enjoyed a couple of drinks and some basic tapas (tortilla de patata, jamon y pan) before wandering over to Antigua Castaneda. This bar was less crowded, which surprised me, because the food was far superior. In fact, Antigua Castaneda served up the best spinach and garbanzo beans we've had on our entire trip. We stuck around for a couple more drinks, then headed back to Hostal Lima to get a good night's sleep.

The next day, we made our way to the Alhambra. Atop a hill overlooking Granada, the sheer size of this Muslim Castle was impressive. We toured both the Generalife (gardens) as well as the palace and castle. JCB took an audio-guided tour that fed him all the facts about the building and city's history. I opted to simply walk around and take pictures and have JCB fill me in on the good stuff. It's kind of difficult to describe the Alhambra, so I'll just leave it up to the pictures...

After our trip to the Alhambra, we visited a Hammam for an afternoon bath. Baths, actually. We visited an Arab bath house! We spent two hours soaking in different pools of cold, lukewarm, warm, very warm, and hot water. And in between baths, we received massages with aromatherapy. It was a warm relaxing way to end our day. 

Free tapas, the Alhambra, and Arab baths? Granada has definitely edged out Sevilla to become our second favorite town of the trip, just behind Barcelona. I wonder what's in store during our quick stop in Madrid followed by two nights in Valencia?!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Sweet Home Sevilla

Adios, coche! Hola, Sevilla! Upon our arrival in Sevilla, the first order of business was to return the rental car to Hertz at the Train Station. Oh, happy day! We loved the freedom of our car, and our road trip through rural Spain was unbelievable. However, now that we will be spending the rest of our time in larger cities, we have opted to travel by foot/bus/train. JCB and I can go back to being our normal selves. (Meaning, no more arguing over how the other one is driving!)

After returning the car, we made our way back to Barrio Santa Cruz, one of the liveliest neighborhoods of the city. At the recommendation of our taxi driver, we made our first stop in Bar Alfalfa for cerveza and tostada con queso y salmorenjo. Toasty, cheesy, delicious. We decided to continue our bar hopping while heading back to the hotel – it was time for siesta!

After a long afternoon / evening nap – I think we woke up at 9:30 PM – we showered, dressed, and headed out onto the town. JCB had planned several tapas bars for us to visit, and they were all fabulous. By midnight, we were stuffed, but we had a couple more drinks before heading home for good. We really wanted to stay out and see some of the club scene, but the clubs weren’t really going to pick up until 2AM, and there was no way I was going to make it that late. We will make it out super late once. I promise!

Our Sunday was busy, starting with breakfast at a cute, cheap tapas place called La Companara. We then ventured over to El Alcazar, which put all of the other castles we have seen to date to total shame. This castle was gigantic. Elaborate tiling, a beautiful garden, and so much space. I think we wandered throughout for over an hour. And I’m pretty sure we took over one hundred pictures…

After the castle, more tapas. It is so fun to eat in Sevilla – lots of great food, but in small portions. It is fun to be hungry every two hours again! We continued to wander around, next to La Plaza Espana, and just hung out for a while. Watched Spanish toddlers get into trouble, mostly. We’re both intrigued when we hear little Spanish voices. It is frustrating that they can speak better than us!

Last on our agenda, was La Catedral de Sevilla. Another cathedral. I have had my share of cathedrals by now, but this one was pretty cool. It boasts being the largest of the worlds Gothic cathedrals, and also the third largest of all the world’s cathedrals (regardless of architecture). In addition, the cathedral houses two paintings by Goya, as well as the tomb of Christopher Columbus. It also has one of the most elaborate altars I ever seen, with a backdrop of 40+ gold statues and religious scenes telling stories both of Christ and Sevilla. I have never seen anything like it, before.

After a quick climb to the top of the cathedral tower, we realized that 4PM was quickly approaching: time for another round of small plates. We chose a spot not too far from the cathedral, next to some locals, and had gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimp – with heads) and a fried fish of sorts. Very good. During dinner I checked my pedometer and saw that we had walked 14 KM that day. No wonder we were so tired! So we headed back to the hotel for our favorite time of day, siesta.

We loved Sevilla. So much so that we thought we could actually live here. And we think we will probably return again, and hopefully soon. But for now, it is time to get ready for Granada!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cordoba – The Return of the Tapa

Our drive from Rascafria to Cordoba was supposed to take about 5 hours – and it did. It’s just that it also took two hours once in Cordoba to find our hostal. Considering both JCB and I were already quite ready to get out of the car, having to drive around a city without street signs trying to figure out where we were going was a strain our already waning patience.

Cordoba, like the other smaller/medium size cities in Spain, has many, very narrow roads. And the only signs that are posted say “Do Not Enter.” Our hostal had posted signs to point us in the right direction, but out of the eleven turns we needed to make to arrive, only 4 had signs – and the last turn, the turn that would have put us right on the street we needed to be on, well no sign for that turn existed.

We stopped several times to ask locals for directions. One very kind man even drew us a map. Still, we managed to mess up again. But luckily, JCB found some landmarks, and after pulling over to let the traffic pass us five or six times, we somehow managed to get back on track. And after only one more wrong turn, we saw THE sign to our hostal. We checked in just in time for a round of tapas...

It’s no secret that JCB and I have been getting just a *tad* sick of tapas. Well, tapas are back! These Andalucians know how to make small plates – especially without ham! Now that we are somewhat closer to the sea, we are seeing a resurgence of fish and other tasty vegetables. Not to mention delicious wines. Our favorite tapa from Cordoba was the salmorenjo – kind of a cold tomato soup with olive oil and a small bit of ham and hard boiled eggs – DELICIOUS.

With the return of great food, we treated ourselves to a great dinner in La Juderia – the Jewish neighborhood in town. Casa Pepe de la Juderia came recommended in Lonely Planet, and it didn’t disappoint us. I had salmon with orange sauce, while JCB ventured out a bit and had ox tail. We enjoyed some sangria, as well. Then the next morning, we continued eating salmorenjo, this time at breakfast with a tortilla de patata. This tortilla was the best yet, probably because our waiter doused it in olive oil and salt before serving it to us. Yes, we are LOVING Andalucia.

After breakfast, we toured Cordoba’s main attraction, La Mezquita. Another Catholic church turned Muslim mosque turned Catholic Cathedral. (La Mezquita is Spanish for mosque.) We were blown away by the beauty of the arches inside. So many entryways upon which JCB gazed... After about an hour of touring La Mezquita, it was time to check out of the hostal and continue our journey onto Sevilla. But Cordoba was a wonderful, if not quick, stop. 

Friday, November 28, 2008

Our Spanish-American Day of Thanks

We slept fabulously in our Sheraton Sweet Sleepr Bed, and woke up early on Thursday - Thanksgiving Day - with intentions to be as American as possible. This Thanksgiving  was the first either JCB or I have spent outside the US, and given the plethora of pork around us, we were both sad to be missing out on Thanksgiving feasts. 

But I had a great idea, if I do say so myself, to order "El Desayuno Americano" off the room service menu for a delightful American Breakfast in bed to start our day off right. And since we had also picked up a bottle of rose wine - yes, rose, which I now refer to as "breakfast wine" - I thought that adding some chilled wine to our American Breakfast  would be a great way for us to get over missing such treats as sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberries, and of course, turkey, during our families' Thanksgiving dinners. 

Boy was I right. I cannot wait to incorporate more breakfast wines into my life back in SF. We ate our meal, which also included American Coffee (and lots of it - not just a small cup!) and raddled off the things for which we are both thankful. It was a pretty special morning.

After breakfast, JCB and I got showered and dressed for a day in Segovia. And I will admit that for once, JCB was ready to leave before I was. (Something over which I am still amazed, but for which I am nonetheless thankful..) Before getting in the car and heading to Segovia, we walked around our hotel grounds to check out the Monastery of El Paular, the main attraction of Rascafria. 

I then took the wheel for our hour-long drive to Segovia, which in itself was amazing. The steep, winding roads took us through forests and over a mountain pass. Neither of us expected to drive through such a beautiful, snow covered mountain range in Spain. Especially not in November. The winding roads were quite scary at times. JCB in the passenger seat practicing Spanish ("Dos libros rojos...") with me bracing the wheel through switchback after switchback. We continued on for quite a while rather peacefully, when all of a sudden, after a rather sharp curve, I screamed.

"There's a BULL in the road!" And out of shear panic - I was SO afraid the bull was going to ram into the car - I sped off, while JCB fumbled for the camera. He was a little pissed, as he (reasonably) had wanted a picture of the bull. But my heart was pounding in fear. That bull was huge. HUGE. But in hindsight, I guess I wish I hadn't been so jumpy. I imagine it is doubtful the bull would have ran into the car. As JCB pointed out - in Spanish, I was so proud - "El coche no es rojo." (The car is not red.) So there is no proof of our run-in with a bull on the country-mountain road of Spain. But we swear, it happened.

We made it to Segovia not long after our run-in with the bull. We found parking outside of the center of town, and began walking in the very brisk November air towards the tourist attractions. Our main goals for the day were to see the Roman Aqueduct ruins, La Catedral de Segovia, y El Alcazar (castle). Each were amazing. It seems that our itinerary of cities is in the perfect order, as the architecture in each city seems to get better and better. 

Perhaps it is because we're both engineers, but the aqueducts were our favorite sight of the day. The Romans somehow constructed the aqueduct - which is 2950 feet long and stretches from the Sierra de Guadarrma mountains to the edge of town - without mortar. Just large granite stones placed on top of one another. It just doesn't make sense that this work could have been done 2000 years ago. I also don't understand why the people of Segovia didn't just build their town 2950 feet closer to the mountains, but that is a rather moot point in this day in age.

La Catedral was also impressive, but a rather quick stop for us. I think we've seen our fill of churches by now. So we wandered through town, lunched and shopped, before heading to El Alcazar. This castle is one of the most famous castles in all of Spain, because so many kings have lived there, but also because Walt Disney chose this castle as his model for the castle in Sleeping Beauty. The town eats that factoid up, by the way - there is a bar not far from the castle called Disney Bar. (We didn't stop there...) 

After climbing to the top of the tower and taking a few snapshots, JCB and I were ready to head "home" to Rascafria. Segovia was great, but after a few days in very quiet small towns, we were a little taken aback by so many people, not to mention so many Americans. I love how after a week in Spain and four lessons of Rosetta Stone, JCB does not want to hear any English. 

Back in Rascafria, we dined on more American food in honor of Thanksgiving. I had a vegetarian sandwich with potato chips, JCB a hamburger with French Fries. Glorious! We relaxed in our room with some more cheap but delicious Spanish wine, watched a couple episodes of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and drifted off into a peaceful, thankful, Spanish slumber.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ruta de Don Quixote

It is strange how we always arrive in towns so happy to be there, and always leave towns so happy to be moving on. Today was no exception. Even after an amazing dinner in Siguenza, we awoke early this morning, eager to get on the road... especially with some American food. We are really at our wits end with some of these tapas places!

We got on the road, and traveled north to Ayllon before heading back South towards Segovia and Rascafria. For some of the drive, we were following the Route of Don Quixote. (Or so the signs said.) It was actually a beautiful drive, with lots of castles and mountains and small towns. We are definitely getting our fill of small town Spain.

For the next two nights, we're staying at a lovely Sheraton in the very small town of Rascafria, about 100 KM outside of Madrid. It is quiet and peaceful and covered in snow. And since JCB and I both have spent so many nights at the Westin in Chicago for work, we are cashing in on points for a very cheap stay. Que bueno! 

JCB and I are both fighting colds, so upon arriving, we had lunch and then went back to the hotel to relax and rest. Our Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Bed is amazing. We climbed into the crisp white sheets and fell asleep for a few hours, and woke up around 9PM. For dinner, we ordered room service. Talk about lazy! We split soup and a hamburger. We watched a movie on my computer, Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about Terry Gilliam's efforts at making a film of Don Quixote. And we are ready to turn in for another blissful night of restful sleep.

Tomorrow, we will venture the hour's drive to Segovia for a hefty amount of sightseeing. I have wanted to visit Segovia since I learned about it back in my high school Spanish classes. I am very excited for tomorrow, to say the least. So time for bed - more tomorrow. Adios.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Latest Itinerary

We've made a few updates to our trip, again. Adding a night in Siguenza and moving Madrid out a few more days. Check out this map of our travels:

View Larger Map

We'll be turning the car in once we hit Sevilla, and training it from there. Nearly a week into our travel and we're having a great time. We're taking off for our another couple of quiet days in Rascafria (free Sheraton nights close to Segovia). More soon...

Spain Pics - Round 1

My sleepy day in Siguenza made for ample time to compile photos. 

Snow and Sleep in Siguenza

The first few days of our trip were pretty busy. So when we arrived in Siguenza, and realized how cute this place is, we decided again to re-arrange our itinerary and spend an extra night here. Vacations are supposed to be restful, right?

After we unpacked our bags, we headed down the street to Bar Alameda for lunch. Our drive to Siguenza took a bit longer than we had anticipated, due to some tricky sign reading near Medinaceli, so we were very hungry. Inside Bar Alameda, we found a bunch of locals playing cards and dominos. I don't think anyone except the bartenders work in this town. 3PM on a Monday and everyone was drinking and eating and having fun.

We sat down to tortilla de atun (Spanish omellette with tuna), chorizo, bread, and two drinks that I thought were a dark, stout-like beer. However, after a grimmacing first sip, we decided the drinks were less like stouts and more like Spanish Long Island Iced Teas. From a keg. Nasty stuff! One drink and both JCB and I were on our way to siesta time. 

We made our way back to the hotel, but stopped at a little store (mercadito) and bought some snacks, including two bottles of Spanish wine. A tempranillo reserve from 1999 (4,90 Euros) and a Rioja reserve from 2000 (3,30 Euros). Both were amazing, and we probably thought they tasted even better because we knew how cheap they were. Sleepy, we siesta-ed all night long. Nothing is open in Siguenza on Monday nights, so "when in Rome."

This morning, we awoke to light snow and brisk 2 degree Celsius temperatures. We bundled up - JCB literally threw his pants on over his pajamas - and took a walk to get breakfast. More tortilla, chorizo, and cafe con leche. Our food was good, the coffe was better. We felt ready to tackle our day.

Except that by noon, we were pretty much done with our day.  Siguenza is SMALL. Really small. Although La Catedral is beautiful, we whisked through it in about 20 minutes. And the castle? Well, the castle has been converted into a hotel. Still picturesque, yes, but nothing to really see except the outside. Still, we managed to keep ourself busy by eating every couple of hours. 

Yes, every couple of hours. We are hungry! All the time! In fact, I'd say we've been hungry pretty much since we left Lleida. And as we tried to find a place to eat, I started to remember why I previously vowed never to go back to Spain - the food is horrible. Well, let me correct that statement: the food in Madrid is horrible. And maybe all of Castilla? Cured hams. Bacon. Chorizo. Cured hams. Bacon. Chorizo.  Cured hams. Bacon. Chorizo.  And body parts that I prefer to see on a body rather than in a stew. And everything in oil. Even cheese in oil. Is that necessary? We miss our fish. We miss Barcelona!

When times are tough, though, I think it is always important to reach out to the locals. So we went into the Office of Tourism and picked up some brochures with restaurant recommendations. We sat on the cold steps of La Catedral and found a place that served "migas" - what our Lonely Planet described as an Aragonian treat of breadcrumbs, tomatoes, and olive oil. We had been looking for migas in Zaragoza, per our Lonely Planet's suggestion, but never found it. So, imagine our excitement to find the dish in Siguenza. Regrettably, though, and much to our surprise, when our migas arrived we found them caked in chorizo and chorizo juice and sprinkled - or maybe I should say, showered - in chunks of fat, which I will assume was meant to be bacon, but was really just gristle. Que es esto?! Bummed about our migas, we really only had a few bites. Sadness...

Siguenza came through in the end, though. We found a Chureria and satisfied our lunch craving with churos y chocolate! And we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around our hotel. We lied in our bed, opened our curtains, and watched the snow fall. Siesta came early today. JCB slept while I watched a movie and compiled our pictures. But now it is time for La Cena, and we're eating at the hotel restaurant downstairs. The menu is impressive - take a look - and since there are many options without ham and bacon, we have faith that el Doncel will restore our faith in Castillan cuisine.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Night in Zaragoza

Did I mention that we climbed 238 steep, winding stairs to reach to the top of the Cathedral Tower in Lleida? I don't think I did. That trek did a number on our legs - and thus, we were pretty excited to sit in a car for a couple of hours, driving to Zaragoza. 

JCB had an idea NOT to take the freeway, as our trip from Barcelona to Lleida was ridden with tolls. I didn't think there were going to be any more tolls, but since it was his turn to drive, I agreed that we could take the scenic route. New rule of the trip is that the driver gets to (has to!) make decisions, and that after all quibbles, we must kiss and say, "Te amo", which means, I love you. After money and how to raise the kids, I am certain how to drive is #3 on the list of topics over which married people argue.

But back to our drive, it was very scenic, if by scenic you enjoy driving through West Texas: a whole lot of nothing. Considering how many people live in Spain (40.5 million - gracias, World Factbook) and that Spain is roughly twice the size of Oregon (again, gracias World Factbook) and knowing that the population of Oregon is only about 3.7 million (A different factbook), I was not expecting to see so much open space in this country. I was wrong.

The drive wasn't that exciting, so JCB and I went through lessons of Rosetta Stone Spanish. (He is coming along quite well!) By the time we reached our exit for Zaragoza, we were both pretty ready to be out of the car. But we were not ready for the sight that lied before us - La Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, en La Plaza de Pilar. A mouthful, es verdad (true), and quite deserving of the title.

Says the Lonely Planet, "Brace yourself for the saintly and the sombre in this great baroque cavern of Catholicisim." Lonely Planet has let us down from time to time on this trip, but they were pretty spot on with this description of one of Zaragoza's main attractions. We couldn't take pictures inside, so we loaded up on quite a few outside. (Example, left, taken by JCB at night.)

There are no official tours on Monday, but since I was raised Catholic, I filled JCB in on some of what La Basilica had to offer from a religious perspective. JCB filled me in on the interesting historical facts. La Basilica was erected because on the grounds, on 2 January AD 40, Santiago (St. James the Apostle) saw the Virgin Mary descend atop a marble pilar. This piece of marble - "la pilar" - is enshrined inside La Basilica, and many of the faithful - including popes - have knelt before it and kissed it. In total, La Basilica was beautiful, and I even lit a candle for my grandparents inside.

Our evening in Zaragoza was somewhat tame, as it was Sunday night. But we managed to find a little tapas bar at which we dined on two amazing salads: green tomatoes with pesto and mozzarella (drizzled with balsamic vinegarette and served on a bed of greens) and a unique cold tuna and red peppers with pine nuts (drizzled with a raspberry vinegarette and served on a bed of greens). 

We rose Monday morning and had breakfast at the local chureria. Yes, that's right - a churos store. Absolutely nothing healthy about our breakfast, but absolutely nothing wrong with eating deep fried bread drenched in sugar and dipped in chocolate when you are on vacation. After breakfast, we made our way to another church/palace with Muslim and Catholic influences, La Aljaferia. 

La Aljaferia boasts beautiful architecture and ornate decor. It is one of the first palaces with Muslim origins through which I have toured while in Spain. And what I have learned from this experience is that I am a sucker for all the detailing in Muslim architecture: the elaborate doorways, the orange tree groves, the water fountains... I simply cannot wait to see La Alhambra in Granada. La Aljaferia certainly did a great job at getting me excited to tour more of the Muslim influences of Spain. 

Our tour of La Aljaferia lasted about an hour, and then we strolled back through the winding streets of Zaragoza. Frustrated that so many stores were closed on Monday, we finally found a small place at which we grabbed a more wholesome breakfast of bocadillos (small sandwiches). We checked out of the hotel, loadeded up the car, and were again on the road... 

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Yay-dah: Lleida

Due to some unforseen circumstances - JCB's client decided not to pay for our third night at the 5 Star Hotel in Barcelona - we have adjusted our itinerary. A little frustrating, yes; we found out pretty last minute, and by that time, we couldn't go back and see all the things in Barcelona we weren't going to get to see. But challenge is really just more opportunity, right? 

So instead of having a crazy night out in Barcelona on Saturday, we packed our bags, rented our car, and started driving to Lleida. That's right, Lleida. We hadn't heard of it before, either. But it was about halfway between Barcelona and Zaragoza, and we were able to score a 4-star hotel room for 64 Euros, so why not?

Well, yay for Lledia. Even though the town was virtually dead on a Saturday night, JCB and I managed to find the one happening restaurant: La Masia. The place resembled the nursing homes at which I used to tap dance as a kid. Carpeted floor, large circular tables, a coat rack on wheels, and a television on a stool in the corner. Add to it that all the tables were flanked by middle-aged Spaniards smoking like chimneys and toasting to life, JCB and I were quite sure we had invaded a family reunion. 

But we were received warmly. We're not sure an American had ever set foot in La Masia before. Our waiters spoke Catlan. Our menus were in Catalan. So I was speaking Spanish to the waiter speaking Catalan, but I wasn't even sure what I was saying. 

Nevertheless, I found a seafood dish to eat. I settled on it only because the waiter confirmed that none of the fish in the dish would have heads or eyes. JCB settled on a lamb chop. We saw a lot of feet on the menu, but when the waiter said, "Baaaaaaaah" and pointed to his leg, we figured he'd be OK. Not to my surprise, though, the food was fabulous. 

Delightfully full, we went back to the hotel, and slept soundly. Finally! We woke early, had some breakfast, and headed to a Catholic Cathedral turned Muslim Mosque turned Fortress turned turist attraction. It was a sight - just see the picture at left. And would you believe it, "This church has a bar!"

We walked around the grounds, both inside and out, and took a lot of pictures. The combination of the Muslim and Catholic influences in the archictecture was what I found to be most interesting. We made our way into a chapel and found a group of people celebrating what I thought was mass. However, we soon realized it wasn't mass, mostly because we noticed that one of the men on the altar was presenting a sword to the congregation. Loco!

After a quick stop at the bar (for coffee, although had we wanted, we could have had a shot of tequila) we were on the road again, headed to Zaragoza. Lleida, our unexpected, delightful surprise excursion, forever in our hearts. 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Estamos en Barcelona!

After about 19 hours of travel, JCB and I have made it to Barcelona. For the past day we have done nothing but sit in airplanes, airports, or taxis. We have also done our fair share of eating. But since we really haven't slept, we are still starving. So we are trying to figure out where to go for la cena...

Our hotel - Hotel Majestic - is right in L'Eixample, so we are very centrally located throughout town. We had an amazing lunch of tapas and wine at a small place down the street. And it looks like we're going to head to another tapas bar - Cerveceria Catalana - for a light dinner before we go back to bed to pass out. Stay tuned for photos tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Long Time No Travel

It has been about a month since my last substantial trip. (Meaning, I went to Europe, of course.) And tonight, I am packing my bags to do it again... Only this time it is for fun!

JCB has a meeting in Barcelona, and I have decided to cash in some vacation time to join him. I'm going to be away from November 19 - December 8, and it is all for fun. So psyched! Here is our itinerary...

Date Destination  
19-Nov-08 Flying to London Heathrow and on to Barcelona 
20-Nov-08 Barcelona 
21-Nov-08 Barcelona 
22-Nov-08 Barcelona 
23-Nov-08 Zaragoza 
24-Nov-08 Siguenza 
25-Nov-08 Madrid 
26-Nov-08 Rascafria - Segovia 
27-Nov-08 Rascafria - Avila 
28-Nov-08 Cordoba 
29-Nov-08 Sevilla 
30-Nov-08 Sevilla 
1-Dec-08 Granada 
2-Dec-08 Granada 
3-Dec-08 Toledo 
4-Dec-08 Cuenca 
5-Dec-08 Valencia 
6-Dec-08 Barcelona 
7-Dec-08 Flying back to SFO

Stay tuned for lots of updates on our whereabouts!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Galway and Cliffs of Moher

And yet again, I learn that I am not meant for group tours...

I woke up this morning at 5AM to do some packing before heading to the train station for my Ireland Railtours trip. I caught a taxi at 6:30 AM, giving me plenty of time to get to Euston Train Station, just 10 minutes away, for my 7:00 AM departure. If only my taxi driver could hear. Because I don't think Euston sounds anything like Connoly. Do you? Right.

I arrive at Connoly station and as I'm about to get out of the taxi, I ask, "This is Euston station?"

"Oh, Euston station! I thought you said Connoly station. Of course, you wouldn't want Connoly station. You would want Euston station!"

I pleaded with him to drive quickly, as my train was going to depart in 20 minutes, and Euston station was about 15 minutes from where we ended up. But alas, I arrived at the station just as my train was departing. 109 Euros down the drain...

But I'm not afraid of independent traveling. Hell, I embrace independent traveling. It was only until this trip to Ireland that I considered taking a tour, mostly because the things I wanted to see were outside of Dublin and I don't *really* know my way around Ireland. So I purchased a ticket to Galway directly, hoping that once I arrived, I'd be able to catch a bus to Cliffs of Moher.

Roundtrip ticket from Dublin - Galway, 30 Euro. Lovely!

It was rainy and chilly on the train, but they served coffee and I was prepared with reading material. I read, snoozed, and took pictures out the window at the green, green, green pastures along which horses, cows, sheaps, donkeys, and goats grazed. But I wasn't all that impressed with the Irish countryside. Yet.

Once in Galway, I found some advertisements for day tours to points of interest along the coast, and sure enough, Cliffs of Moher. Roundtrip ticket on the public bus, 20 Euro. Brilliant! What a fool I was to think I needed to take a freaking tour. I had about a half hour to spare before the bus would depart, so I grabbed some more coffee and tried to wander around Galway a bit. But it was rainy and I wasn't in the mood to deal with it, so I sat at the bus stop waiting for my next departure.

The bus was nicer than I imagined it would be. I took a seat towards the front and had a perfect view of the scenery to come. The rain wore off, the sun actually came out, and the Irish countryside really was splendid. With the ocean in the not too far distant, the small houses, stone fences, and rolling green were beautiful. If only I could have gotten out a bit more to take some good pictures! But, taking snapshots through glass got me across the US back when I made the Cross Country Trek to San Francisco, so I think I'll be able to salvage a few good pictures.

I didn't get to see Limerick, River Shannon, or Bunratty Castle. The trip I ended up taking only covered part of what the tour covered, and it did so in reverse fashion. At one point, I actually saw the coach for Ireland Railtours drive by. But I did ride through the Burren and along Galway Bay prior to reaching the Cliffs of Moher. Lots of small towns with of course, many pubs, and even some bed and breakfasts that seemed to be very relaxing.

The Cliffs themselves are beautiful. Reminded me a lot of Northern California, actually. Only with more green and a little less sun. I was able to get some good pictures, and even met some Americans who were in Ireland on a golfiing trip. (Note to Dad: Golf in Ireland and bring Mom!) I was only there for an hour, because there isn't a whole lot else to do. But all in all, it was worth the 10 hour round trip. And I will keep telling myself that!

We made it back to Galway around 3PM, which gave me some time to wander around more. I found my way to Quay street, lined with pubs and shops and did a little shopping damage. I had a Guinness and some soup and chips, then headed back to the train station to come back to Dublin. Everyone says Galway is a great city for going out at night, but I unfortunately didn't have enough time for that. My flight leaves tomorrow at 6:45 AM!

So lessons learned for Nic: organized tours are not for me. Too expensive and too inflexible. I have learned from LEFS that I don't need to spend a lot of money while traveling to have a good time. And I have learned from my own experience that things never go the way you envision they will while in another country. Sooner or later (I'm hoping later because I am really tired of flying to Europe!) I'll be back in Ireland; and now that I've been here once, I have a better idea of what I want to do next time.

Over and out from Dublin... Cheers!

2008.08.30 - Galway and Cliffs of Moher

Friday, August 29, 2008

Railtour Ireland

I didn't really go into it last week because it wasn't the point of my trip to Belfast. But I got to Belfast by bus, on a bus tour. Now, Mom always takes bus tours. I don't. I hate bus tours. I hate the guide talking the whole time, I hate... being on a bus. I think it brings back memories of riding the Greyhound from Charlottesville to Durham to visit my boyfriend in college who went to Duke.

I better get back to the point before I sidetrack too much...

So, last weekend I booked a Paddywagon Tour. But when the bus came to pick us up, it ended up being overbooked. And because I was traveling by myself, I was the person who had to get kicked off the tour.

Now, I'm living in Dublin for two weeks, working 14 hour days and pretty much running myself into the ground. I want a freaking day of touristing! I almost started to cry. The travel guide tried to find other tours for me, but everything had already left the city. So he let me get on the bus - he was going to drop me off at the Paddywagon office - when I just asked if I could sit on the floor. He was a cool guy, and he let me, but it kind of sucked. Luckily, some nice men from Bass and France (note - not England, as my Irish tour guide pointed out repeatedly) gave up their seat for me, but seriously!

Sorry, Mom, I tried your preferred method of travel and it didn't work for me. I will go back to taking trains, subways, public transportation busses, and my own two feet.

Saturday, I will take a train. Railtours Ireland will carry me to the mid-western coast. "A day trip to Ireland's rugged and unique mid-western coast, through Limerick on the mighty River Shannon and on then to the imposing Bunratty Castle with its lovely folk park. The stunning Cliffs of Moher, the Burren and Galway Bay. A flavour of Galway City concludes the tour before our return to Dublin."

It should be a great day. Lets hope for some sunshine when I'm at the Cliffs!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday in Belfast

I traveled from Dublin to Belfast today. Dublin is part of the Republic of Ireland. The currency is the Euro. And the people are Catholic. Belfast is part of the United Kingdom. The currency is Pounds Sterling. And the people are Protestant. And Catholic.

And they don't get along.

Without getting into all of the history, the focus of the touring today was on the relationships between the Protestants (UK Loyalists) and the Catholics (from Republic of Ireland). Belfast is a city divided by religion at its foundation, but also politically. To top it all off, the city is also physically divided with walls to separate the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods.

I have never seen anything like this.

Our tour guide kept trying to say that Belfast is cosmopolitan, and up and coming, ant that it will very soon be another European powerhouse city. But I didn't see any of that. I saw people who don't interact with one another. Bars and pubs named to show which side they are on, and no mixing of Protestants and Catholics. There is so much history in Belfast, but all that stood out to me was hate.

Coming from San Francisco, a city that to me defines tolerance, it was a lot to take in; and I found myself quite inexplicably crying while taking in a photography exhibit outside of the Belfast City Hall. The exhibit, "1000 Families - Building Unity through Diversity" included photographs of families of all shapes, sizes, colors, and economies from all over the world. I have always been more moved by photography - reality - than by paintings, but I don't recall a picture ever bringing me to tears until today. Standing in front of some beautiful photographs, in the middle of a city that didn't feel united in any way, just made me so sad. I cried. I just felt really sad and terrible to be in a place with so much hate over something as ridiculous as religion.

I took a lot of pictures today. Some more upsetting than others. But in total, I feel privileged to have seen Belfast, and even more to know that I will go home to a city that thrives on diversity and acceptance.

2008.08.24 - Sunday in Belfast

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday in Dublin

After a long night working on Friday, I went to sleep and enjoyed eight miraculous hours of rest. I woke up on Saturday morning to a lot of rain, and very little motivation to leave the apartment. Luckily, LEFS is in West Africa, somewhat on my timezone, and we spent a solid hour or two catching up on Skype.

What would I do without Skype?!

When the rain finally let up a bit, I ventured outside and wandered for a while in South Dublin. I had intentions of making it to the Guinness Storehouse, but was given directions to a very small Guinnes Store, not the Guinness Brewery, so I ended up just walking around Dublin and doing some shopping along Grafton Street.

It was a rather uneventful day, but I kind of needed a day of un-events...

Friday, August 22, 2008


I haven't been blogging much lately. Mostly because I really haven't wanted the small amount of free time I've managed to squander at a computer. But alas, when I find myself on the other side of the world, I always seem to also find some spare time - and an itch to blog...

So here I am in Dublin, Ireland for two weeks for work. One week down and I have pretty much spent most waking hours in front of a computer. Kind of stressful, and it's not done yet, but I'm trying to remain positive. I mean, how can you not be positive in Dublin with all this... rain?!

It has rained every day for the past seven days. And probably, the seventy-seven days before that, really. But this city isn't phased. From 11AM - 3AM I find Dubliners drinking and smoking in the streets, laughing. It's rather impressive. Especially when I think back to my drinking days in DC and how the rain was really the only thing that stopped a night of debauchery. Not in Dubl

The city is pretty small - I already have a pretty good sense of direction and can walk almost anywhere. I arrived on Sunday night, worked and did some shopping on Monday, worked and saw Riverdance at the Gaiety theater on Tuesday, worked and worked and worked on Wednesday.

By Thursday, we'd had it with working, so we had a fun night on the town in the Temple Bar section of the city. Temple Bar has an amazing combination of what one considers "Irish" with what one knows is inherently cheesy and touristy. We went to Dougheny's by the office (not so much Temple Bar...) and then headed over to Porterhouse and Ri Ra and had a ridiculous quantity and combination of alcohol. So much so that I didn't make it into the office on Friday until 11:30 AM. But the brilliant thing about our European offices is that 11:30 AM is still 3:30 AM San Francisco time, so no big loss!

Cheers to next week being more relaxed and from a work perspective but packed when it comes to traveling...
  • Saturday - Dublin, Dublin, Dublin
  • Sunday - Day Trip to Belfast
  • Monday -Thursday - Dublin Touring as Schedule Permits
  • Friday - Guinness Storehouse
  • Saturday - West Coast Rail Tour - The Cliffs of Moher, Burren and Galway Bay
  • Sunday - Back to the States!
Check out pics from Thursday night in Temple Bar!

2008.08.16 - Dublin Week 1

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sonoma State Beach - Coastal Camping

Even with a broken wrist, we still managed to camp this weekend. Yes, we had to let go of the idea of kayaking into our site off of Tomales Bay at Point Reyes and embrace the idea of car camping. I know - CAR CAMPING! But we backpackers were quickly reminded that with Car Camping there is WINE and BEER instead of (in addition to?) Crown Royal and Bushmills. So we were OK with settling. But only until my wrist gets better!!!

2008.07.04 - Sonoma Coast State Beach Camping

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Broken Wrist

I am back from my world travels, and without a doubt, the most frustrating trip I have ever been on.

1) Laptop crashed 20 minutes into my flight from San Francisco to Rome. A business trip on the other side of the world without a computer?

2) Cute new GREEN shirt I bought before my trip? I am positive a maid stole it in Rome. OK, maybe I forgot it somewhere, but I really did check under the bed and I thought I had everything. Seriously!

3) London? I didn't really even see much of London other than the 6 blocks between my hotel and my office.

4) Philly? Well, that was actually fun. Like, really fun. Except for the part at my cousin's wedding when I fell on the dance floor and broke my wrist. Yes, I am 28, and yes, I am wearing a cast on my left arm. It is GREEN.

It is hard to type, but I will update everyone on the rest of my travels soon...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Rome Top...

I have no idea how long this list is going to be. But I ducked into a cafe because I just cannot imagine not documenting all of the amazing things I have seen today.

In no particular order...
  1. Palm Trees. In Rome! How come I have never before seen a Palm Tree next to the Colloseum?
  2. Really? I look Italiana? Sono spiacente, sono americana... (I am sorry, I am American!) Please do not talk to me so quickly!
  3. Really? I look that American? The other 51% of this country thinks I am Italian. Please, at least say, buona sera!Siesta. It is effing HOT here. And no one should have to be awake for this nastiness.
  4. Straight men toting Louis Vutton bags.
  5. Straight men toting Prada bags.
  6. Straight men... looking dubiously straight, more or less. They are so in style.
  7. Really? I look Italiana? Sono spiacente, sono americana... (I am sorry, I am American!) Please do not talk to me so quickly!
  8. Really? I look that American? The other 51% of this country thinks I am Italian. Please, at least say, buona sera!
  9. Gelato.
  10. Sweating. I normally HATE sweating. But here, you just sweat, sweat, sweat. Then refer to numero nove, above.
  11. Full women in tight, tight, tight, WHITE pants and shirts.
  12. Full women bringing ME size SMALL in all stores.
  13. Chianti.
  14. Shoes! Why they never took Carrie to Rome for Sex and the City is beyond me...
  15. Montepulciano.
  16. Colorful buildings with lots of windows and large shutters.
  17. Key cards for lights. Sure, it is a little odd, but it is good for the environment and I never lose my hotel key!
  18. Mozzarella. So fresh and so...
  19. Pizza. If it is this good here, I am afraid to go to Napoli!
  20. Wine. Have I mentioned that before? Because really, all the wine, even the white wine (Mom!) is all amazing. And, if drank correctly, it yields no hangover.

It is 8PM now, time for more wine and gelato. Really, I know it is actually time for dinner, but I could not wait any longer. I was starving an hour ago. Round 2 coming up. Ciao!

Friday, June 20, 2008

When in Rome...

I kind of fell in love with Mountain Man JCB on our first date. I know, I don't believe in Love at First Sight. But I do believe in Love at First Watching of Ace Ventura Pet Detective. When JCB and I said all the words to Ace Ventura Pet Detective, in unison, from start to finish of the entire movie, I knew this was it.

My feelings for the man were only reconfirmed when months later, after a long night of drinking, we woke up and watched Anchorman from start to finish. Again, JCB could not keep quiet and recited every single line of the entire movie. And much to my surprise, every single line of that movie - that movie I had only seen once prior to this viewing - was a line that JCB frequently used. A line that frequently brought me to hysterics, nonetheless. And I had no idea he was being entirely unoriginal all the while!

However, given my inclination to memorizing movies and dropping the lines whenever I can, this only made me love the guy even more.

I love scotch. Scotchy, scotch, scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly...

For just one night let’s not be Co-workers. Let's be Co-people...

Baxter, you know I don't speak Spanish...

I love lamp...

When in Rome...

So, now that I actually am, IN ROME, I am missing Mountain Man even more than ever. This city is pretty amazing, I have to say. And it would be a lot more fun to eat all this gelato and drink all this wine and do all this wandering around if I weren't all by myself.

But I am, IN ROME, and it is 9PM, so I better go get some gelato...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Romeward Bound

We are approaching that time, again. That time when I really, really, really have to do laundry. Because I really, really, really have to start packing.

But I'm not going to complain. Because I'm not going to Chicago!

Tomorrow morning at 9:01 AM (flight time confirmed by Mountain Man, so that I don't end up missing my flight!) I will depart for Rome, Italy. I'll be there for almost a week, attending a meeting for work (naturally). But I'll be able to take some time for myself to explore the city...

I will be spending my first three nights at the Rome Marriott Park Hotel outside of the city. Then, after the meeting, I'll head into the Hotel San Carlo, "located in one of Rome 's oldest and most exclusive areas just off the Piazza di Spagna."

I am very much looking forward to a week of gelato and red wine... Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Escape from Alcatraz - The Videos

I'm normally not someone who tends to spend the day on You Tube watching clips. However this triathlon has done strange, strange things to me.

I spent all day Thursday before the race watching this clip...

And I spent time (more than I care to admit!) since the race watching this clip...

Perhaps it is because I cannot wait to get into the water again...

Time to find another race!

Escape from Alcatraz - The Details

I barely even heard the alarm, as I was up and out of bed within a mere second of it alarming. It was 4:30 AM, and I was ready. Oh, was I ever so ready.

By 4:45 AM, I was on my bike and riding to the Marina Green. In pitch darkness. Throughout the entire ride, all I could really remember was AER's retelling of her Escape last year, and how amazing the entire day was. I cannot remember ever wanting to race so badly - 10K, Marathon, Relay, or Triathlon. At barely 5:00 AM, I couldn't wait to get in the water!

I set up my transition in about three minutes, wondering the entire time, why the hell this step used to take me so long. I was on the bus by 5:15 AM and headed to Pier 3, where I would wait for a couple of hours before getting on the San Francisco Belle to head to Alcatraz. For the next hour and a half, I had no nerves - I made friends and chatted, sipped coffee and stretched, peed, peed, and peed.

By 7:00 AM, nearly two hours after arriving on the scene of The Escape, we FINALLY felt like we were going somewhere. We boarded the the San Francisco Belle and set out for Alcatraz. I peed six more times. Talk about excitement! We did a loop around the island, and I had a perfect window seat to take it all in.

Finally, after what felt like days, and I'm pretty sure one more trip to the bathroom to pee, the Pros made their way onto the dock. We sang the Star Spangled Banner, and all of a sudden, we were counting backwards from ten. The Pros were climbing over the deck to dive into the water, the rest of us, still inside the boat, were SCREAMING. Excitement!!!


But the horn sounded, the pros dived in, and next thing I knew, the race directors were yelling at us to get in the water. I had barely a minute between the horn and my entry into the water. Just enough time to get my goggles in place, but no time at all to second-guess what I was about to do. Alcatraz to my right and San Francisco straight ahead, I jumped into The Bay and started swimming.

The Bay's 55 degree water didn't even feel cold. The people swimming on top of one another didn't feel stifling. That ridiculously strong current? Well, it didn't eat me. I swam pretty well, I think. I didn't really see a kayak, proof that my sighting was right on. If anything, I was a little too conservative with my line. Nearly 15 minutes into the swim, I realized I should probably be heading further to the west. I started to worry that this swim was going to take me a long time. But eventually, I was at the St. Francis Yacht Club.


I felt the sand under my feet, and started running. I was kind of afraid to look at my watch, but as soon as I did, I saw that it was only 8:37 AM. Meaning, I had done the swim in about 35 minutes. I have never really enjoyed running after swimming, but on Sunday, I didn't even have to dig that deep! I took off my wetsuit, put on my T1 sneakers, and started running the half mile back to the transition.

I heard Mountain Man and AER while coming out of the water, and I saw my parents on the run back to the transition. Finally at my bike, I started to get ready to bike. But not first before sitting in the grass and peeing. I know, it's EMBARRASSING, but I couldn't pee in the water, and I had to pee before getting on that bike. So, I gave the most powerful powersquat of all time.

And then I started riding. For an 18 mile ride, the bike course for The Escape is brutal. It feels like the entire ride is uphill. And because there is virtually NO wave start to this race - all 1800 athletes enter the water in six minutes - I couldn't really tell how I was doing. I was riding with plenty of men, but hardly any women. My mind started racing...

Was I so slow that all the other 25-29 year old females were ahead of me? Or was I doing so well that I was ahead of them? Where the hell were the women?

Luckily, I had done this ride a few times. I was expecting the 18 miles to take me about an hour and 20 minutes. Up the steep hills into the Presidio. Up the long upgrade to Legion of Honor, and continuing, still climbing, up Clement towards the Pacific Ocean. I finally reached the Great Highway and turned into Golden Gate Park, and before long, I reached the halfway point. I had been on the bike for 35 minutes, meaning my roundtrip would take about an hour and ten minutes, way faster than my expectations.

So, I decided I was racing well. And from that point on, I couldn't stop smiling. Even up the Great Highway Hill by the Cliff House, and those two treacherous little big hills before Clement. I cruised through Sea Cliff, back up into the Presidio, and finally, back down towards Marina Green to the transition. By now, the crowds were really growing. I could see all of my friends lined up to cheer me on, and it felt fabulous.

I made it through T2 in decent time, not pushing myself too much, as I knew I had 8 miles - and lots of hills - ahead of me. I really can't think of a run I hate more than a run that comes after a bike ride, but I have learned I run better if I give myself some time to ease into things. So I started slow. I breezed past my friends and family, who cheered their hearts out for me, and headed out towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

I have never raced a course like this triathlon run before. Trail. Steps. Single-track. Edge of cliffs. Pacific Ocean. TONS of people. Remember, there is no wave start, and this 5 foot 3 inch girl was running with a lot of men. Men who were about six feet tall with long legs. It was a very crowded run, especially for a single-track course (on a cliff, above the Pacific Ocean) that is being used for both the OUT and the BACK.

There were few passing opportunities, but I ducked through all those Daddy Long Legs when I could. I'll be honest, I didn't have many opportunities to pass. And I'll be really honest - it didn't really matter. I think I ran pretty well, even up those never ending hills and stairs. Until we got to Baker Beach. Seriously - they make you run ON THE BEACH. And it's not like there's any packed sand here. The entire beach run - about a half mile or so? - is in loose sand. For the first time in the race, I started to feel miserable.

It wasn't that long of a beach run. But it wasn't over yet. The sand ladder was waiting for me. These race directors are EVIL. All the articles I had read before the race said to not even TRY to run the sand ladder. So I didn't try. Hundreds of steps. Lots of people. SAND. I held the railing and just tried to walk up the steps as quickly as possible. Without dying. It was another portion of the race during which passing people was not an option, but at that point, I didn't care. I just wanted to get out of the sand.

Nearly four minutes later, I reached the top of the sand ladder. Then I had only a little bit more to run before REALLY reaching the top of the hill. And afterwards, it was time to cruise back down to sea level and The Marina Green. So I picked up the pace, knowing that I had barely a 5K left until the Finish Line. It was a long 5K, but with every step, the spectators kept telling me I only had a little further to go.

And soon enough - seriously, it felt soon - I made it off the packed sand and back to the road, only a half mile to go until the Finish Line. I ran past my friends and family, SO HAPPY. For having such wonderful people in my life to support me. For the amazing race that I was about to finish. For that race to be OVER. For the day to be so beautiful.

As I rounded the corner into the finish chute, I saw that the race clock read 3:06. I couldn't believe it. For months, people had been asking me how I thought I would do in this race, and I honestly couldn't answer. I figured my time would be somewhat comparable to my time at Wildflower, but only if I had a really good swim. And a really good bike. And a really, really good run. It was amazing to cross that finish line feeling SO HAPPY. And GRATEFUL. And STRONG.

And now, a couple days later, I sit here wanting to do it all again. The day could not have been more perfect, and it absolutely embodied my favorite outlook on life.

Fear Less. Live More...

And Escape. From. Alcatraz.