The stop in Madrid was a logistical detail leftover from Ryanair canceling our flights to Spain. Our real journey began in Toledo. When we arrive in a new place, we usually try to walk from the train station to our house so that we can get a feel for the city. That's not always possible, but it usually works well. In Toledo, it was a great walk. The route took us near a couple of ancient bridges into the city, past some great views of the Alcazar on the hill and through a canyon along the Tagus river:
One of our goals for living abroad is for our kids to learn how to navigate through places they're unfamiliar with. We take turns having each kid lead us to our destination by following signs or maps. Sometimes we get lost, sometimes we arrive unscathed and we almost always have fun. Here's Gideon leading the way through Toledo's old city:
One challenge we've noticed with traveling and living abroad is that all seven of us are in tight quarters most of the time. In Wyoming or Iceland, when you want some private time, you walk into the wilderness, sit on a rock and stare at the clouds. Elbow room is easy to come by in those geographies. In the Spanish cities where we traveled, personal space is harder to come by. Our houses in both Toledo and Cordoba had courtyards where we could be outside while still being walled off from the hustle of the surrounding city. We instituted a family rule that the courtyards were silent places. If anyone wanted quiet, they could retire to the courtyard for a little peace. It's not quite a rock in the prairie, but it got the job done. In Toledo, Haven also found some peaceful spots along the Tagus:
In Cordoba, our house was a couple blocks away from the Mezquita-Catedral. This building had been a mosque for almost 500 years during the time that Muslims controlled Spain. After the Reconquista, it was converted into a Catholic church. They basically just changed the sign on the door and converted the minaret into a bell tower. Walking through the church, it looks just like a mosque but with Christian chapels around the outside wall. It was fascinating. Anyway, the Cathedral has a large irrigated courtyard planted with orange trees and date palms. During a morning visit, a branch full of ripe dates fell from a palm tree, so we all ate dates in the shade of the Mezquita. It's a beautiful place:
In Valencia, our house was near the beach and the city's main port. We watched container ships come and go while playing in the sand:
Valencia also has a giant playground inspired by Gulliver's time with the Lilliputians. A giant statue of Gulliver is tied to the ground so that children can climb and slide and jump all over him. It's hard to communicate the scale of the playground, but here's a picture of all five children scattered along Gulliver's left leg:
The timing worked out great to travel through Spain during the Catalan referendum on independence. We were in Toledo on the day of the vote and in Barcelona when the Catalan Parliament declared independence from Spain. The politics had very little impact on people's daily lives. We saw no protests and only talked to one person who mentioned the situation. The most visible sign of the process was flags flying from apartment balconies. In Cordoba, the apartments draped a Spanish flag over the balcony to signal support for Spanish unity. In Valencia, about half the flags were Spanish and half were the Estelada, signaling support for Catalonian independence. In Barcelona, we saw the Estelada almost exclusively. It was joined by flags saying "Si" or "Hola Republica".
Next stop: Marseille, France. We'll only be there for 10 days, so I might lump it in with a blog post about Italy next month.
This may not seem like much excitement for an entire month in a foreign country. That's partly by design. We want this year to be more like living abroad than an extended vacation. Most days for us are just like most days for you: we exercise, go to work, buy groceries, cook dinner, help the kids with school work. We explore the city a couple days each week and go to church on Sunday.
The surprises of travel spice things up a bit, but not as much as you might expect. I broke one of my ribs in Boston, so exercise has been tricky. We ate galleta Maria with hot chocolate for breakfast every morning since that's what the Spaniards do. While trying to catch a train from Barcelona to France, we discovered that we were departing on All Saints' Day and buses to the train station were canceled. We're always glad to find a pay toilet since we know it'll be clean and fully stocked. Small surprises like this, against a backdrop of structure, make it fun and educational without being stressful.