Cows in the Catskills

Until I travel to Greece in April, I’ll have to do a little reminiscence blogging here on TraveLuxe. By which I mean blogging about (more in the past) trips.  For this one, I’m going a bit more local, and focusing on the accommodations.

In August, one of my closest friends got married in the Catskills where, surprisingly, I’d actually never been. Most of our trips to New York State have been to one of three places: Buffalo area (due to lots of family up there), New York City, or more recently, the Finger Lakes region. But I’ve wanted to check out the Catskills, so I was pretty excited for the opportunity.

We decided to stay at a Bed & Breakfast, because the region is filled with them and, believe it or not, I’ve never stayed at a true B&B. (Note, not an AirB&B, as I have my issues with them, but a good old fashioned B&B). Having never been to the area, I began my search the good old fashioned way – searching among B&Bs through various sources. I looked at picture after picture, mentally making a list of the ones that I wanted to revisit. And then, I came to one that’s first picture was…. a Scottish Highland Cow!

 

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One of the three cows at Brookfield

 

I love Scottish Highland Cows. Cows in general, but especially the long haired variety. Upon further inspection, the B&B, called Brookfield Farm B&B, got rave reviews, had just three rooms, which was exactly the size I was looking for, and had three highland cows on site (in a farm area, to clarify – not IN the B&B). And, the rates, even in tourist season, were quite affordable, as far as I was concerned. I emailed immediately.

Within an hour or so, Caroline Murphy, one of the two owners (Michael Murphy being the other), answered me back.  Quick replies always strike me as a good sign, and we booked. They even allowed us to check in early, since the wedding was the same day we were arriving, and we needed to get ready in time to head over – considering that means they had to be there at a time they usually weren’t, I was pretty impressed with that.

Brookfield Farm B&B has three rooms: the Garden Suite, the Meadow Suite (the one we chose) and the Highlander Suite, which is a two-room suite with a large deck that’s located in a converted barn. All three have en-suite bathrooms, a sitting area, a fridge, coffee, and a microwave, to name some of the features. You can see pictures of each suite on their website.

 

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Dark picture, but the room was nice and bright.
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We had a little table, fridge coffee maker. Perfect!

 

Upon arriving, Caroline and Michael Murphy greeted us at the door, welcomed us, and showed us to our room. We absolutely loved the Meadow Suite – nice size, big king sized bed, located at the back of the house. Perfect for our stay. Naturally, after setting our things down, the first thing I did was go outside to find the cows – Nessie, Beckah, and Uly. They did not disappoint. There they stood/laid/walked in all their hairy glory. Adorable! They also have chickens on the property, in a coop on the side of the the barn-turned-suite.

 

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Fast forward to the next day (the wedding, by the way, was super fun and the catskills made the perfect location). We had arrived at the Breakfast part of the Bed & Breakfast.  We opened our door to find a handwritten note and a picnic basket, filled with fruits, homemade muffins, breads, and cones, and various jams and spreads. Delicious!!  We took our picnic basket outside to a table on the pool deck and enjoyed the peacefulness of eating freshly made food looking out over the farm (and the cows, also enjoying their breakfasts!).

 

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The property has a garden area on site, and if you wander the path that goes around the cows’ area, you’ll come to a lake with some chairs. It was muddy when we were there, but I can imagine in the spring it’s beautiful.

 

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This little B&B, tucked away down a long drive off of a side road, was so peaceful and relaxing. I could practically feel my stresses melting away for the two days we stayed here. And the service couldn’t be beat. Personal welcome, customized notes each day, hand made breakfast… what’s not to love! I truly cannot wait to go back there again and explore the area more.

 

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Old Arab Baths/Furiously Stripping Down In A Waffle Shop

After the sunrise hike and breakfast/coffee, we had the rest of the day ahead of us. We planned to wander through town, see what else we could find, and souvenir shop. We had a day and a half left in our trip, and were seriously lacking in the souvenir department. We often don’t tend to have a specific destination when we wander, and the lack of maps that had any actual streets on them made this pretty much our only option for the afternoon’s adventure. We knew there was more to discover, we just didn’t know exactly what, or where. So we walked.

Eventually, we came to a sign indicating the “Conjunto Historico” or, roughly translated, historic center. I realize this might not be a direct translation, but it gets the point across. Ronda has a rich history of Islamic influence, particularly from the early 700s to the end of the 1400s AD, and the architectural evidence of this can be seen in the historic center.  This section of town was actually relatively close to our hotel, but we’d done a bit of winding in and out of streets and up and down hills, before we come across it. We wandered across the Puente Arabe, or Arab Bridge, through the Arco de Felipe V (I think this translation is self explanatory), and eventually stumbled, almost literally, upon the Arab Wall. You’d think the walls would have some giant sign or arrow, but we found them up a crumbly stone staircase off to the side. You can walk along the top of the wall, which naturally, we did at length. The view is spectacular, and I can’t recommend this enough.  

 

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Start of the Historic Center

 

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Arab Bridge
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Steps up to and along the Arab Wall

Ronda is one of Spain’s “White Villages”, named such because virtually every building is white. Which doesn’t sound all that impressive – it sounds rather bland actually – but when the sun is shining and you’re looking over the expanse of the hills filled with pure white houses, is quite stunning. I feel like saying “It’s so pretty there are a bunch of white houses on a hill” doesn’t really do it justice, like basically everything else in Ronda, and so I’ll let some pictures speak for themselves.

 

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Looking down at the Arab Bridge, Arab Baths, and farm land from atop the old walls
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Looking out over the farm land below
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Taking a break on the Arab Wall
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View of the white houses of Ronda from atop the wall

 

Once we’d had our fill of walking along the tops of the wall, we went back down the crumbling stairs and turned right to continue along our initial path. Shortly after, we came to the Arab Baths. If you just want a quick peek, you can view a portion of the baths for free from the top. But if you want to wander down inside of the baths, you can pay a small fee – I think it was three euros. It’s not a huge area, but it’s worth a look. They do pipe in some kind of cheesy water sounds, I suppose to give you the feel of being in the baths, but it’s still interesting, and only takes maybe 15 minutes or so to wander through, though I suppose you could spend more.  

 

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Arab Baths from above
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Inside the Arab Baths

 

From here, we made our way back across the Arab Bridge and the Arch of Felipe V, and found the Jardins de Cuenca, or Basin Gardens (I’ve also seen it called Terrace Gardens). Seeing as it was December, there weren’t a ton of gardens to be seen, though I was impressed by a few hearty plants still in bloom. This is definitely a site I’d want to revisit in a more garden-friendly month, as I can imagine it’s quite impressive.

 

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Jardines de Cuenca

 

Back at the hotel, after siesta, we did the super touristy thing, and sipped wine on the hotel terrace overlooking the Ponte Nuevo. And it was totally worth it. You basically have to do this, right? So we did.

 

 

 

And then, it was time for…. waffles! Now, we knew from the day before that we had to eat dessert before dinner. Around 6PM, we set out in search of a dessert shop. We came upon a particularly crowded one, where we saw waffles galore, and took it as a sign. After getting what seemed to be the last available table and ordering our nutella topped waffles, we noticed something unusual – it was really, really, really warm. First, we thought maybe it was because we were walking briskly and the place was wall to wall with people. We took off coats and hats. But it was still alarmingly hot. We pulled our hair back to cool off. Still so, so hot. At this point, we began furiously tearing off layers of clothing, to the point where we were sitting there in tank tops, sweating, not able to take off anything more because we would have most certainly been kicked out. Except for one woman fanning herself in the corner, nobody else noticed how freaking hot it was. They all sat there in their winter jackets, hats, scarves, eating their desserts, as we threw off as many clothes as possible in what must have looked like some sort of SNL skit over at our table. We noticed that the windows of the cafe were completely fogged up. It clearly wasn’t just us… except that apparently, it was.  We ate our waffles, which were absolutely delicious, as quickly as we could, grabbed our layers of clothes and jackets, and sprinted out the door, literally panting. Finally, after being outside for a few moments, we were able to begin putting some clothes back on, while laughing hysterically at ourselves and wondering, how could nobody else in the entire place been sweltering? My cousin actually asked, “Were we on some sort of hidden camera show that they were all part of?” It seemed the only plausible explanation.

Cooled off, finally, we went in search of dinner. Which was significantly less adventurous.

A Frosty, Coffee-Deprived, Sunrise Hike

Our main reason for coming to Ronda was hiking. As I mentioned in my last post, we tested the waters on our first day there, made a wrong turn or two, and deduced approximately where we’d done so. On our second day, we planned a sunrise hike, which we were super excited about. We’re both hiking enthusiasts, and we’re both in good shape (OK my cousin, Lauren, is in great shape, and I’m in “not bad for 38 years old and really likes carbs” shape).  Still though, we’re used to hiking reasonably good sized mountains and all that stuff. So my descriptions of how easy/tough parts of the hike were is based on this. If you’re in significantly better shape/have never hiked in your life, please take that into consideration if using this as a guideline. 

Let me digress for a moment to explain our packing strategies for this trip. We left the Monday after Thanksgiving, which meant packing time was limited, given family gatherings and such. Also, we both dislike winter, and the cold, and both particularly despise wearing pants. Which I realize sounds weird, especially for two cousins traveling together. But we prefer dresses and skirts, shorts are acceptable but not our top choice in warmer months, and if we must wear pants, they should be of the leggings/jeggings/stretchy jean variety.  Which means packing for a week-long trip where the average highs were in the high 40s and the lows in the 20s was tricky. Especially when you add in active wear. So the “what to wear” discussion for this hike was pretty serious business. Neither of us wanted to wear our winter jackets because they weren’t exactly hiking material. In the end, we layered up and hatted up, and I was lucky enough that I always carry a default pair of stretchy gloves in my coat. For the record, I HIGHLY recommend the 32 Degrees Heat gear. I wore just the baselayer top over a old tank top (not from 32 Degrees Heat) and a track jacket type of getup from Costco (yes, most of my outfit was from costco and I’m not ashamed of that). I actually didn’t freeze to death, despite the fact that it was, ironically, 32 degrees in the morning with frost on the ground. Also: you need to own fleece-lined leggings. Not only are these the comfiest thing on the planet, but they literally saved my ass from freezing.

 

 

Bundled up and without any coffee because there was no place to get coffee this early we headed off on our hike at 7:30AM. If you don’t know us, you may not realize what an issue this is. But I’m pretty sure that both our first thought upon waking each morning is coffee. Especially when you’re preparing for a hike, it’s literally freezing, and it’s still dark out. We had thought ahead and bought croissants the day before, knowing there was no place we could get breakfast at this hour on a Sunday. So there was that, at least. But let me repeat… no coffee, 32 degrees, frost on the ground, hiking down a mountain in the semi-dark. We were still ridiculously pumped.

To recap getting to the hiking trail, from our hotel just on the new town side, we crossed the Ponte Nuevo, turned at the first right, and followed it around to the entry point. If you were coming from the opposite side, you’d be turning left at the last street before the Ponte Nuevo, though I’m sure from that direction there are easier ways to get there. I’m trying to explain it as best I can, because the lack of maps of this town is kind of remarkable. Once entering the hiking trail, we wandered down the wide steps, until we got to the fork in the path by the first viewing area. We turned left, continuing on the wide steps and straightaways.

When we got to the second fork in the path, we turned right – the opposite direction of where we headed the day before. You’ll know that you’re headed the correct way because, sooner rather than later,  you’ll find path instead of pavement. As you walk along here, you’ll come to a plateau of sorts, with an archway on either side. Go through the one to the left (if you’re standing between them,  with the Ponte Nuevo off to to your right side-ish). If you’re unsure, look at the path through each arch. The path that leads to the bottom looks surprisingly steep, and it is. Because it’s a straight shot down the side of the mountain. If you look at this path, you can see the entire thing, until it ends at the bottom. The other side, the side you do not want to take (we tried on the way back just to see where it took us), has more brush, and doesn’t look as steep, but eventually it ends – at least for the every day hiker that doesn’t do the repel down the side of the mountain thing.

 

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This hobbit-sized looking archway is the one you want to go through. View once through the arch, looking back at Ponte Nuevo. 

 

So, once you head through the archway to the left, you’re on a narrow path with a few rocky patches. I say a narrow path, but the mountain side is wide open. You just probably want to stay on the path portion. A note here: if you think you’re going to lose your footing (not impossible because of the grade and the dirt/rock combo) crab walking and butt-scooching are totally acceptable. While neither of us were in danger of pencil rolling the rest of the way down the mountain, better safe than sorry if you feel you may be. Luckily, we managed to make it feet on the ground the whole way down.

Let me pause a here a moment to say that even frost-filled and coffee-less, the sunrise hike was worth it a thousand times over. Watching the sun emerge from behind the mountain, as you’re standing in a gorge at the bottom of Ronda, with the cliffs, overhead and no other soul around except your traveling companion, is incredible. It was beautiful, quiet, peaceful. So peaceful. It felt like we were the only people in the town of Ronda. In fact, in the valley all together. We saw nobody else until we were almost back up to the top.

 

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Sunrise over the valley
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Look at those colors!
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Tail end of sunrise
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From the gorge, looking up

 

So with that said, back to the hike. Once at the bottom, we were back by the road from the day before. We turned to the right, and shortly after came upon signs for a restaurant, proclaiming to have…. coffee! But they appeared closed. Thwarted again! Still too early, it seemed. We continued to wander, following signs for a hiking trail and, when that brought us to a dead end, for historic houses of Ronda.

Eventually, legs and glutes increasingly unhappy with us, we made our way back up. Through the arch, up the steps, and back to the first viewing platform. We’d vowed that we’d go back to the path that led under the bridge, so we continued on past the viewing platform in that direction (if you’re coming from the top of the hiking trail, make a right by the viewing platform to head this way). This time, we were on an actual path. This was actually a part of the hike in which the freezing temperatures helped us, as the path, quite muddy the day before, had hardened slightly and wasn’t nearly as slippery that morning.   Eventually, we reached a sharp turn, followed by a long, downward sloping boulder-type rock that appeared to be wet. We had arrived at official butt-scooching territory. Once down the rock, we had two options. If we headed straight, we had to make our way across the very edge of the cliff, on a ledge that was a foot wide at best, with absolutely zero railing or fencing. In other words, once mis-step or slip or anything of the sorts, and you were in the gorge below.  The view was super tempting – it looked like you’d be able to see the waterfall under the bridge in its entirety, and appeared to head toward another waterfall that we hadn’t even realized existed. And I competed in high level gymnastics, including, balance beam, for the majority of my youth so it technically was feasible. But then I recalled the number of times I actually stayed on the beam without falling in those competitions. And decided to not go that way. Instead, we followed the path to the right. This was still a bit nerve-wracking, but at least there was railing and/or a wobbly fence, depending on where you were on the path. There were also some stairs, which I didn’t love, as they were old and cracked. Not super reassuring when you’re over a gorge. Eventually, it took us under the Ponte Nuevo.

 

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On the trail that heads under the Ponte Nuevo

 

Once on the other side of the bridge, we came to what appeared to be almost a quarry-like area. Rock walls flanked either side, water ran flowed down the boulders to the and into a stream at the bottom. There were a few odd buildings – one that warned of voltage, but clearly had been vacant, for years and another little building that almost looks like a guard tower. I’ve looked for information on what these structures might be, but I can’t find any firm answer.

 

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Right on the other side when you cross under the bridge.
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Quarry-like area
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Huge rock walls as you continue along the path

 

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Ponte Nuevo from the other side, after crossing under it.

 

Once we had our fill of picture taking here, we headed back up the way we came, spider crawling up the boulder that we butt-scooched on the way down, and back towards the viewing point, where we made a left to head back towards the top. Finally 500,000 wide stairs later (that might be a slight exaggeration) we were back on solid, even ground. And naturally, we headed towards our next stop: the Parador’s breakfast. And coffee. Lots of coffee.

We returned to our hotel by approximately 10AM, so the whole excursion took us about 2.5 hours, in part because we explored in the valley, and also stopped to take pictures. I wouldn’t say it’s a difficult hike, but it is glute-quad-hamstring intensive, since it consists mostly of stairs and hill – i.e. there aren’t a lot of straightaways. The portion under the bridge isn’t as physically difficult, as it’s more of a straight path, so if you’re up for a little adventure but not a legs workout, this may be the one to check out.

In Search of GORGEous Views – Ronda Part 1

Ronda was our last new city in Spain. (Our actual last stop was back to Madrid, for flying out purposes).  On a sunny Saturday, we trained less than two hours from Cordoba to arrive at the destination that we’d basically been anticipating our entire trip. Save the best for last, right? We’d seen photos of the Parador de Ronda, of course, but you know how photos online go – taken by a professional photographer from the most expensive room with the most impressive view at the perfect sunset lighting. But from the photos and website description, supposing that at least the location given was accurate, we knew that the parador was on the edge of the cliff. We assumed that the train station was not, so we started discussing options for getting from the station to the hotel. We googled the distance, crossing our fingers that there would be cabs, but figuring we could walk it if we absolutely had to. It was only a 17 minute walk, which wouldn’t be bad if it wasn’t on the side of a mountain and we weren’t lugging suitcases. We really aren’t wimps, but you had to be there to understand the copious amounts of luggage dragging while having people try to push you down the stairs that we experienced during this trip. Still, worst case scenario, we knew we could do it. We then began discussing how far we thought the parador was from town. Could we walk to town from where we were staying? Would there be a cab easily accessible? We hatched plans.

As we exited the train station in Ronda, we saw a sign with a number to call for taxis. Not wanting to pay for the international call, we went back inside of the station and asked the gentleman working there if he could call for us. After the call, he told us a number – I think it was 14, but I might be pulling that out of… somewhere else. We were a little confused, but he assured us a taxi was coming. Sure enough, minutes later a taxi pulled up with the number 14 (or whatever it was) on the side. Easy enough.

No sooner did we pull out of the train station than we started seeing stores and restaurants. And probably 10 minutes later, max, our parador – right between the new and old sections of town.  Perfect! Except… we’d been waiting and waiting for that view, and so far, we hadn’t seen a mountain. After checking in, we took a sneak peak out of the panoramic window by the lobby dining area. We were indeed on the mountain’s edge! Amazing. Apparently, the train station is on the mountain, as is the town. At this point, we practically ran to our room, luggage and all – luckily there was an elevator, but even if there hadn’t been, some things are worth dragging luggage up stairs for. Immediately upon getting into the room, we dropped our bags in the doorway and raced each other to the window/balcony. And our jaws dropped. I am convinced that our room must have had the best view in the entire parador. Our balcony was right at the edge of the cliff, and overlooked the entire valley below. I have stayed in a lot of places over the years, and I can honestly say that this is probably one of the top three views I’ve experienced at an accommodation. Needless to say, we spent almost all of the time we weren’t out exploring on the balcony.

 

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On the balcony of our hotel room. It doesn’t do the view justice.

 

Starving, we found a restaurant just across from the parador. We expected it to be super touristy, but we were starving. Also, it served something I could eat other than patatas bravas. Don’t get me wrong, I love patatas bravas, but I’m pretty sure that if I ate any more, I would have turned into a potato. And I certainly would have been the shape of one. And they had a veggie burger. (For those who don’t know, I’m a vegetarian). Which I expected to be a frozen patty they heated up, but it was handmade. Fan-freaking-tastic! Bonus, we got to try Rondena beer which, as you probably guessed, is Ronda’s own.

 

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Rodena beer. Surprisingly good!

 

Stomach’s full, we looked at the not overly helpful map of “viewing sites” we got from the hotel, and realized that the Ponte Nuevo, the famous New Bridge, was right next to our hotel. I mean right next to it. From the bridge, we could see the hiking trails, and the general direction where people seemed to enter them.  We made a note to each other to explore that later. For the time being, we wandered in the opposite direction on, a walkway that went started by the back of our hotel (where the view was), and extended to the right. It’s a paved sidewalk – definitely not hiking –  and it’s along the edge, but certainly not “on the mountain.” Just close enough to get a great view. Basically, if you want a good view but don’t want any type of strenuous activity, you can take this easily. People of all ages were enjoying this path. There’s another viewing area along there, in a gazebo where musicians come and play.  And by musicians, I mean one woman with a guitar playing Paul Simon and, later, one guy with an accordian. But people all gathered and sang along and danced, so it was kind of cheesy fun. Note, the photos I’ve included here were taken later, from our balcony(!). 

 

 

Back to the Ponte Nuevo a little while later, we decided to find the hiking trail, even if just to get a feel of where it was, so we weren’t searching around in the cold and relative dark the next morning, when we planned to do a sunrise hike. 

Tip: If you’re walking across the Ponte Nuevo, from the “new” section to the old, turn right at the first street you come to. Follow it around. Eventually, you’ll see the entrance. We didn’t time it, but I’d say it’s maybe 10 minutes or so from the bridge.

At first, the hiking trail was large downhill steps. Not so bad. We came to one of viewing platform (and one natural outcrop of the mountain that wasn’t supposed to be a viewing platform, but worked as one). The view of the Ponte Nuevo, the waterfall, and the farmland below was fantastic. A few photos later, we looked at the fork in the path and took the one that seemed to head towards the bridge and waterfall. 

 

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Taking from the viewing platform. That building on the edge there, that’s our hotel.
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Ponte Nuevo, and the waterfall beneath. From the natural viewing platform. 

 

Another Tip: This is not the way to the hiking trail that leads to the bottom of the gorge, which we had guessed, but it is the way to head under the bridge. This isn’t as strenuous, but it’s probably a little more concerning if you don’t like heights, as you are walking right along the edge of a drop-off, with a railing and, at parts, a wobbly fence.  We didn’t do the whole thing, because we weren’t really in the right attire and footwear, but vowed to come back the next day. More on this path in the next post.

We headed back in the direction of the the viewing point. This time, we went the opposite way. This, we knew, would lead us towards the bottom of the gorge. We didn’t plan to do the whole hike, but we wanted to get an idea of where we’d be heading the following day. More large steps, which eventually gave way to more or less sidewalk, when we came to another fork in the path.  My cousin had found a blog post from a few years ago that pictured an archway and instructed hikers to head through the arch. We glanced an archway to our left and went that way. We were still on basically paved ground, which didn’t really seem like a hike. We continued. Through the arch, we came on another fork, and took the route that seemed to lead us in a downward, albeit windy, direction. Still paved. Eventually, we decided to turn back. We were determined to catch sunset from our balcony, and the sun was getting low in the sky. As we were walking back, we noticed cars coming at us. Which was super confusing since we were supposed to be on a hiking path, albeit a cemented one. And it was then that we realized we were on the road. Perhaps, we thought, this wasn’t the hiking path afterall. We’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, but we couldn’t figure out where. We retraced our steps and pondered it. Back up the mountain, back up the wide steps, and more wide steps, back past the viewing area, back up more wide steps, and finally onto flat ground at the entrance to the trail. We made it back just in time for sunset (pictured above!).

Back in our hotel room, we looked again at the trail area from afar. We saw what we knew to be the wide steps at the start, the fork in the path by the viewing platform, the paved route we’d taken, the second fork where we’d headed left towards the arch. And the we saw it – two other arches…in the opposite direction of the way we’d gone. Tomorrow, we’d knew which way to head. We just had to figure out which of those remaining two arches to head through.

That evening, after siesta of course, we wandered through the new section of town. Everyone was out. I mean everyone. Babies, grandparents, dogs. So many dogs. The streets, many of which are pedestrian streets, were packed. Why, you ask? Here’s a fun Ronda fact: everyone goes out and eats dessert before dinner. It’s like pastry and waffle happy hour. Literally around five or six in the evening, the dessert shops, which no exaggeration are probably every third shop, are jam packed. Not realizing exactly what this tradition was at first – we just thought an oddly high number of people wanted dessert at 6PM that day – we figured we’d get dessert after dinner. After all, we’d been chasing waffles our whole trip. Nope.  All closed. Post dinner, the streets were surprisingly quiet. The next day, we knew better.  The picture of the packed Ronda streets is blurry, but I think you get the idea.  All those blurry colors in the background are people.  Probably people headed out for pre-dinner dessert – another tradition, like siesta, that I would definitely love to incorporate in my daily life back home. Though maybe not quite way we did the following day.  I’ll be writing on that ridiculous experience in a whole separate post later, because it deserves it.

 

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So, we did what anyone would do (right?). After dinner, we went back to the parador, ordered chocolate cafe from the cafe there, brought it up to our room, and sat in our beds and ate it. I’d like to note that this was not the first time in the trip we ate desserts in bed, nor would it be the last.  

Next up, Ronda part 2 – A Frosty Sunrise Hike. 

 

Accidentally Falling In Love With Cordoba

We weren’t originally planning to go to Cordoba when we made our list of cities to hit up during this trip. But Cordoba, located in the Andalucia region of Spain, is conveniently placed between Barcelona and Ronda, the latter of which was our last destination on our trip. The train ride from Barcelona to Ronda would have been about 6.5 hours with a change in Madrid, and as it was my cousin’s birthday, spending it on a train – even in Premier class with gorgeous scenery – wasn’t ideal. Especially given the number of train routes already involved in this trip. So we chose to stop overnight in Cordoba. I’d heard nothing but wonderful things about the city, and we were able to get there nonstop from Barcelona (it stopped, but we required no train changes). Plus, the less than two hour trip to Ronda the next morning would give us almost a full two days in our final city – a novelty on this whirlwind trip of ours.

I fell in love with Cordoba. Our hotel, the NH Collection Amistad Cordoba, was located in the old walled city. It was like stepping back in time. You’ll know when you pull into this section of town, because your cab driver suddenly has to make a judgement call between taking out pedestrians and proceeding down the road. Picture your car squeezing into a roofless tunnel, clearing the walls by inches on each side. I’m not exaggerating.

 

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Walls of Old Town Cordoba

 

 

But, it’s worth it (assuming you don’t actually take out any pedestrians). Back in the Middle Ages, Cordoba was a Roman center and a major islamic city, so as you can imagine, the architecture, history, and culture here are a particularly unique blend. As you wander the cobblestone streets of the old city, signs direct you to churches, the synagogue, and the mosque. And of course, there’s the Alcazar, the fortress and main residence of Isabel I and Ferdinand II. Today, you can meander through its gardens and fountains, and take in a birds eye view of the city from one of the turrets. In the evenings, there’s a light show (you have to buy separate tickets) that starts at 11PM.  We didn’t make it to this, but if I went back again, which I’d love to, it’d be on my list – because it’s not all that often you can say you saw a light show at a former royal fortress in Spain.

 

 

 

While you’re exploring Cordoba, don’t forget to stroll the Roman Bridge, which spans the Guadalquivir river.

 

 

 

I honestly couldn’t get enough of the architecture in this city. And the colors. Flowers seem to spill from nowhere, even in December. Every building in the old city has a ridiculous amount of charm, and I could walk around for hours simply enjoying the feel of the place. It’s not a huge city, but it’s absolutely worth a stop over. Cordoba also makes a great jumping off point for other locations in the region, such as Granada and Sevilla.

 

 

 

Now, two other super exciting (for us) things about Cordoba. First, they have their own craft brewery! It’s called Califa. You may not realize why this is such a big deal, but for beer enthusiasts like ourselves, there is not a lot of beer diversity in Spain. At least not compared to the exponential rise of craft beer in U.S. cities, such as Philadelphia and Buffalo, where myself and my cousin are from. Also, we love wine but sometimes, you need a change. It was just something different to do – experience Cordoba’s “home grown” beer at the source. Second, we found a restaurant bar. Like a restaurant with an actual bar you can sit at and have drinks. We also found these difficult to come by during our travels, so this was special. Plus, bonus, it was my cousin’s birthday, and naturally, we ordered birthday margaritas. Wine, beer, and margaritas in the same day – the beverage trifecta. The restaurant is called Fusion by Sojo, and I highly recommend it. Now, there’s a restaurant next door to it owned by the same company that looks more like a club – dark, fluorescent lights kind of deal. This is NOT where we went. Ours was casual, classy, and just a chill place to hang out for drinks. They also offer snacks, such as the “cheese aged 36 years” that we ordered. It could have been 35 years, or 5, and we wouldn’t have noticed, but it was good cheese.  

A final note about my Cordoba experience. There are stray cats everywhere. Everywhere. They don’t really bother anyone, but you’re never quite sure that they won’t. We got a decent scare when a dog – uncharacteristically off-lead, as most of the owners literally keep a tight leash on their pets – ran into a pile of cats and obviously frightened the bejeezus out of them. They scattered every which way, darting around. I’m a little skeptical of most pet cats on a good day, so terrified stray cats that have just been chased by a dog and were now running full tilt in my direction was a bit unnerving. Mostly, though they kept to themselves. Just don’t be surprised if they suddenly start spilling out of seemingly nowhere. Because they do.

Next up: Ronda, Part 1.

Christmas Time in Spain – And One Especially Odd Tradition

Everyone is lit in Spain. Because they’re known for their wine, am I right? Actually, it wasn’t like that (though the wine is good).  Because I’m 38 years old and people in Spain don’t even eat until 10PM, and I’m way past starting a “night out” at midnight. Also, as I approach 40, siesta is way better than happy hour most afternoons.  Especially after being up early and walking an average of probably eight miles every day while we explored.  But what is lit up at this time of year is every single street, square, lamp post, and hotel in the cities of Spain. Because this country is huge on Christmas.

In Madrid, the decorations seemed to have their hub at the Puerta del Sol, and extend out from there. In the square sits a giant Christmas tree, which I attempted to get a photo of but it was pouring rain, and it seems to draw everyone from the city to it – tourists and residents alike. Colorful arches and stars and bright strands of lights brighten up streets throughout the city, and it truly feels magical. As my cousin and I noted on our first evening in Spain, after an overnight flight with little sleep, serious jet lag, and it absolutely pouring rain, “This changes everything.” Meaning, we were having a pretty rough first day, freezing and soaked but determined to enjoy the city, and these lights absolutely made it worth it. The enjoyment of the city surrounding these lights, and the square in particular, was palpable.

 

In Barcelona, the decorations are a bit less colorful and eye-catching, but every bit as pretty. Each street is decorated with a slightly different lighted design, usually involving silver or gold coloring, that arches overhead down the length of the street. We found several large Christmas trees as we wandered through the squares – some more metallic, some more actual tree-looking (tough to tell if they’re real), always lit up with white lights.

Perhaps my favorite decoration was what looked to be animal and human figures, lit up in white, and elevated on posts. At first I thought it was supposed to be an avant-garde type of nativity scene, but there appear to be cats in there and, while my catholic school days are far behind me, I’m pretty confident that I don’t recall cats in the nativity story. There’s also something in the center that resembles a ninja turtle holding a golf club, though I think perhaps my interpretation is a bit off.  Either way, it’s a little confusing. But the point is, it was unique. I realize I’m not doing a very good job at describing it, so I’ll include a photo.

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Poorly described decorations in Barcelona

The Town of Ronda was equally decorated, though theirs were not lit.  Still, it made for a very festive stroll through the streets.

 

In addition to the decorations, there were the Christmas Markets. It seems each city has their own way of doing them. The market we visited in Barcelona, which was literally right outside of our hotel door, was vendors selling everything from ornaments to jewelry to figurines to scarves and hats, and so much more. It was akin to what you’d see at an arts and crafts fair, but often  with a Christmas theme. In Madrid, the stalls were mostly food and snacks, such as the chocolate covered churros we devoured in our hotel room – while watching “Bob Esponja”, on what I can only presume is the Madrid cartoon network – on our last night there.  These ridiculously rich desserts are apparently a thing in Spain. Not sure if it’s a Christmas thing, or all year round. But they were available all over, and they’re super decadent.

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The Christmas Market in front of our hotel in Barcelona

 

Finally, an especially odd tradition in Spain, and particularly Barcelona, when it comes to Christmas.  That would Caganer.  Before I continue, I’m going to say that if you are highly religious and/or may be offended by some..um…defamation of the nativity scene, please do not click on the link that follows! I’m 100 percent serious. Despite not being highly religious, I’m still not sure I can get down with this tradition because honestly, it’s just kind of gross. But considering that they sometimes turn these into statues of political figures, I can see where it’s entertaining.  So I’m going to put this link for the Caganer here, because really, I can’t do it justice.

And with that, I’ll end this post.  Because there’s nothing I can really say to follow that up.

Next up, Cordoba!

 

Back to Barcelona

As I mentioned in my last post, my cousin and I took an eight day trip to Spain recently, two days of which were in Barcelona.  Because our trip was a bit of a whirlwind, I’ll be pulling some knowledge from my last visit to Barcelona in this blog too, since there are a few “should dos” that we simply didn’t have time for.

First, let me say this: my second trip to this city confirmed what I knew seven years ago. That despite the taxi strike and getting lost 100 times and the cold temperatures, I love Barcelona.  I’m going to break this post up into numerous sections, because that’s really the best way for me to fully explain our experience.

The Hotel

The Hotel Colon Barcelona (note: not to worry, it’s pronounced Cologne) is my go-to hotel in the city. It sits on a bustling square directly across from the Barcelona Cathedral. The hotel is friendly and comfortable, and has rooms of numerous size. They’ve done some renovations lately, so their rooms aren’t quite as big as they used to be, but for a European hotel, they’re a good size. And the location is perfect. It’s less than a five minute walk from La Rambla, a relatively easy walk to the waterfront, and right near the gothic quarter. Plus, despite an initial kerfuffle about room type, the staff was super helpful, and we even got a free glass from their bar, which naturally, we took advantage of.

Note: There’s currently construction happening in the building, most notably (at least while we stayed there) on the 4th floor – we were on the 3rd, and they did let us know about the construction before checking in. I believe we could have switched our floor if we chose. The construction ends by 7PM, but if you choose to siesta, like we did, every day of our entire trip because who wouldn’t, you’ll hear it. We joked that there was a production of Saw Live going on above us, because that’s exactly what copious sawing and dragging noises made it sound like.  If this would massively ruin with your siesta, I suggest requesting a room on a different floor.

 

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Square right outside of Hotel Colon, facing the Barcelona Cathedral

 

La Rambla

This street can be touristy, and you do have to be careful of pickpockets, but especially for those visiting Spain for the first time, you should take a stroll down it. The center is pedestrian only, lined with outside dining and souvenir kiosks and that type of thing. And yes, restaurants will come up to you repeatedly and try to convince you to eat. That’s annoying, but it’s all part of it. You’ll also get to be part of the hustle and bustle of the city, and that’s a huge draw of visiting Barcelona – feeling the unique vibe of the city. Plus, more or less every little side street in the area circles back to La Rambla, so it’s a good starting point (or ending point or just general point of reference) for exploring the area. And we explored every little side street, though at times not intentionally. Our rule while walking around was that if we weren’t sure where we were, which was often, we could find our way back to La Rambla and reorient ourselves.  It was a huge help in figuring out where we’d been, and where we still wanted to explore.

 

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La Rambla

 

The Waterfront  

This portion of the city really boomed when Barcelona held the Olympics in 1992. Again, it’s touristy, but if you love the water like I do, you’ll want to visit. There are also some pretty cool old buildings there, for those who enjoy architecture, and it’s (more or less) where the cable car to Montjuic starts (more below). Plus, if you want a fantastic view of the sunset over the mountains, this is where you want to be, no question. We also had one of our best meals in the Maremagnum, which surprised me, given how touristy it seemed. And it’s pretty tough to beat tasty food and a glass of wine on a terrace with heat lamps overlooking the water and the sunset.

 

 

 

 

 

Montjuic

Montjuic is possibly my favorite area of the major Barcelona neighborhoods. First, the view over the city is unbeatable. You can quite literally see the entire city on a clear day. It’s also where you can find the old Olympic village, Montjiuc Castle, botanical gardens, several museums, and numerous walking paths through and around the park.

There are several ways to get up to Montjuic. One is the cable car, mentioned above. The cable car looks like it has amazing views. And terrifying ones. We didn’t take this option, though we almost did. Reviews said it was “not for the faint of heart”, which we were willing to deal with. But when they also said you’re crammed in with a ton of other people, we opted against it. I’m claustrophobic in spaces on the ground, let alone hundreds of feet in the air, dangling from a wire. Though I will caveat with this – we didn’t see a single person on the cars, so it may depend on the time of year. If I went back, I think I’d strategically plan it a quieter time of day and give it a go.

Another way to get up the mountain is the funicular. It’s part of the metro system, and this was the option that we opted for… almost.  We walked through some more local, less touristy neighborhoods, which we really enjoyed – you get the feel of everyday life, people going to and from work, kids playing in the playgrounds, local stores and vendors. That’s the kind of travel that’s right up my ally. And we were super proud of ourselves when we successfully found the funicular. Which was closed for renovations. So, we hoofed it. Which brings me to the third option for getting up the mountain.

Walk it. There are stairs and paths, which we combined in order to save our knees. If you’re looking for a view but would like your feet on solid ground, and you’re able to physically do it, walk it. It isn’t the easiest walk in the world, but it isn’t the toughest. It’s basically all uphill (because it’s a mountain), so unless you have some serious buns and everything else of steel, you’ll probably feel it. I may not advise it if respiratory/heart/joint concerns are an issue. There’s always option four (below). I should also add here that I am unsure if this is an accessible option. I know that you can get onto paths/sidewalks for most of it, but there may be some unavoidable stairs. Bonus: there’s a dog park up here so if, like me, you have to point out every dog that walks by anywhere ever, you’ll get your fill here.

Option 4: You can bus it or cab it (if there’s not a strike). There are plain old regular roads that go up the mountain, as we found on our super touristy but sore-feet-friendly big bus tour later in the day. Once you’ve unintentionally walked up a mountain, you are allowed to do the touristy bus tour right? Good.

 

 

 

 

Arc de Triomf and Ciutadella Park

While not quite as impressive (in my opinion) as the Paris version, the arc is worth a view. Adjacent Ciutadella park is also worth wandering through. Outside of Montjiuc, it’s one of the largest green spaces in the main tourist areas, and it contains a fountain, several museums, the zoo (the latter two at a fee), and the Catalan Parliament.

 

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Barcelona Cathedral

There are no tickets needed for the cathedral – you can wander in as you would any church. While not as famous as Sagrada Famiglia, you should absolutely stop in for a quick look. As with many churches in Europe, there’s a dress code, so cover up appropriately.

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Barcelona Cathedral

Should See’s That We Did Not Get to Visit:

La Sagrada Famiglia

Note: we didn’t get to visit this on the most recent visit, but it needs to be mentioned.  Sagrada Famiglia is Goudi’s famous unfinished church, and an icon of the city. I highly recommend getting tickets beforehand, to avoid waiting in line.  

Park Guell.  I haven’t been here, so I’m just going to add the link here, because it’s a highlight of many peoples’ trips. One day! Maybe in six months when I head back to Spain.

Dining

Barcelona is a city, so naturally, it has a plethora of restaurants. Things to note:

  • Dining is late. We had to siesta for several hours each day to be able to start dinner post 9PM. One day, when we were feeling especially proud of ourselves, we sat down at quarter to ten. This was the same night I accidentally knocked my wine glass off the table and a two-year old sold me out to the whole restaurant. Because in Spain, toddlers also eat at 11PM!

 

  • Tapas can vary greatly in size, and many restaurants have several sizes of the same dish. Maybe do the whole “sneakily look at other people’s plates” thing before you order, so you know the number of tapas plates to get. We got everything from plates that looked like entrees to plates that were akin to having two tiny bites on a plate made to share.

 

  • They really love asparagus. So if you’re like me and are a vegetarian, or just like your veggies, be prepared to eat it. A lot. If they can find a way to squeeze asparagus into a dish, they will.

 

  • Many of the restaurants have very similar cuisine, but they all do the major dishes a slightly different way. You may need to venture out a bit to find food that’s not Spanish tapas unless….

 

  • If you like Mexican food, you’re in luck. I can’t vouch for the quality, as we didn’t have any, but there are more Mexican restaurants in Barcelona than I’ve seen in any major city outside of Mexico. I’m not sure why this is, as it’s closer to American cuisine than Spanish, but they’re there.

 

  • If you like English pubs, you’re also in luck. There aren’t a ton, but there are a surprising number, since neither English food or pubs seem to be particularly popular in Spain as a whole.

 

Finally, the Christmas Markets. If you’re in Spain around the winter holidays, you should look these up. I’ll have a whole separate post dedicated to the markets and holiday cheer in the city, coming soon.

The Taxi Strike

I went to Barcelona in 2010 as part of a multi-city trip to Spain. I loved it then, and knew I had to go back. As it turns out, I’m extra lucky this 38th year of my life, as I get to go twice in seven months.

My cousin and I just came back from a whirlwind trip to Spain where we visited four cities in eight days, one of which was Barcelona. I’m breaking the trip up into numerous posts, since there’s so much to tell. This first post isn’t about a city per say, but about an important part of travel in Spain, and Europe in general, because it’s not uncommon.

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Madrid Atocha Station, after way too active a trip to get there.

Taxi strikes, like rail strikes and other types of transportation strikes, are a regular part of travel in Europe. They are pre-planned, which helps. At least, it helps those who know that it’s happening. We did not. We had been in Spain less than 24 hours when we needed to train from Madrid to Barcelona. We had our rail tickets (I highly recommend Premier class), so we were all set. We had asked our hotel the night before about getting a taxi to the train station, and they simply said it wasn’t possible. They didn’t say why it wasn’t possible. They simply said they didn’t think one would be available, and told us how to take the metro – which involved one station change and probably ten large flights of stairs (no exaggeration). Exhausted and a few choice words later, we got to Atocha Station for our train to Barcelona. Mission accomplished.

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Me on the train from Madrid to Barcelona looking more chipper than I felt.

Except it wasn’t. Upon arriving at Barcelona, we began looking for a taxi. Nothing, at first. Finally, we spotted some taxis a ways outside of one station exit. With the drivers all milling around outside of their cars, staring at us when while we stood there confused and looking around. Nobody said a word. In any language. Annoyed, we went back inside and asked workers at the train station about how we could taxi to our hotel, or even take the metro. They said “No.” That was it, just “no”. We looked at them and asked, “So we can’t get to our hotel, at all?” They confirmed, “no”.

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La Rambla, the street down which we had to drag our suitcases for 15 minutes.

Long story short, we did, in fact manage to figure out the metro, and then drag our suitcases on a fifteen minute walk from the nearest metro station to the hotel. When we finally got to the hotel, we saw signs up listing a taxi strike for the day, which was further explained to us by the hotel staff. We immediately confirmed with them there would NOT be a taxi strike two days later, when we needed to train to Cordoba. Luckily, there was not. 

My takeaways:

  • Learn the metro system, and learn it well.

 

  • If you  would really like to ensure that in the event of a taxi and metro strike, which is unlikely but you never know, arrange a private transport in advance. I’ve not traditionally arranged these when just training city to city, as I’ve never had the need and it seems that the expense generally isn’t worth it.   But it could, in cases such as this, come in handy.

 

  • Google Maps is a life-saver. Or at least a vacation saver. If you can wing it, get the unlimited international plan for your phone to be able to use it. I’m 100 percent serious. When you’re at a metro station in the middle of Barcelona, speak minimal Spanish, and are lugging suitcases, you want to be sure you know how the right way to your hotel. 

 

  • Every trip will have hiccups. If yours happens early on, and it’s not earth-shattering, it’ll make a good story/blog later on. So all in all, be grateful that’s all it was. Don’t let it ruin your trip.

 

  • When you’re tempted to pack “just one more thing”, reconsider. This would have been way less frustrating/painful if I’d had a lighter suitcase!

Welcome to TraveLuxe, Again

Hello, and welcome to the refurbished TraveLuxe blog (at a slightly different url). For those who aren’t familiar, TraveLuxe is the blog of Chimera Travel owner, Maya. Chimera has its own site, but this blog serves for the personal stories and experiences, along with travel suggestions, of my many travels near and far. While I mostly book international trips, I like to share my experiences of all of my travels, as there are numerous opportunities for taking a break and getting away closer to home – or at least without needing a passport.

For more on my adventures, you can find Chimera Travel on Facebook and Twitter.

Interested in reaching out to me for some travel? You can do so by email here.

I hope you enjoy the blog, and as always, I’m here for your travel thoughts and questions!