It Takes Guts to “Get a Life”

My vacation in Spain last year left me with a long-lasting after-glow. While there, I talked quite a bit with people I met from England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.  They were all in their mid-30s to mid-50s. Their stories inspired me.

John and Lisa

This couple exited London’s “rat-race” and their stressful professions to travel the world and figure out where, and how, to live a more fulfilling life. They settled on a resort community on the Costa Blanca. This location is the complete opposite of England’s culture and climate.

John and Lisa found an opportunity to start a business that would give expression to their life philosophy. It started with buying a hotel. To me, this was a bold move and quite a commitment for new owners inexperienced in the hospitality services industry.

In 2013, their hotel became a yoga retreat. From what I saw, John and Lisa have created a flexible lifestyle for themselves. It doesn’t mean they work fewer hours — after all, it’s a business, and a new one at that. But, as part of a day’s work, they lead guests in activities they enjoy themselves, like yoga and hikes. How sweet is that??!  They oversee the menus and have an amazing chef who creates gourmet vegan meals. Healthful, fresh juices are prepared twice-a-day as a between-meals treat. They enjoy it all along with their guests!

John and Lisa went all-in with their life philosophy and they “walk the talk.” This couple’s bold move is a success. They are thriving and growing, right along with their business.

La Costa Blanca shoreline

La Costa Blanca shoreline in Albir

La Crisalida Yoga Retreat

La Crisalida Yoga Retreat

Gail (not her real name)

Gail is a single woman in her late 40s – vibrant, fit, and focused. In fact, she had focused for years on the corporate ladder. She was in a high profile, fast-paced division of a large multi-national corporation in London, earning a lucrative salary. At some point, she began to feel unbalanced and unfulfilled.

When we met at the yoga retreat, she was resisting the demands of her job. Her boss expected her to create a blog in her role as an industry leader, even though maintaining it would encroach on her personal time. She and her colleagues were expected to attend to the incessant beep, buzz, and ring of their corporate-issued devices. The pressure to do so outside of regular work hours was intense.

Gail pondered key life areas, like a romantic relationship and motherhood, and decided they mattered to her after all. She had sacrificed these things in her climb up the ladder. Because of her age, the window of opportunity was closing fast.

When we met, Gail had worked out her exit strategy. I asked her what was next.  She said, matter-of-factly, “I’m going to be a foster mum.” I didn’t expect that answer. Transitioning to a full-time “foster mum” as a career??!  To me, that was extraordinary; in fact, it shocked the hell out of me. I expected to hear about a conventional change in profession, or a move to a smaller organization.

Gail told me about the foster parent application process and the upcoming training. She is unconcerned about diminished income, and is saving enough money to make the transition within a year. Gail has a calling to be a parent, whether she has a partner or not. She has a lot of love to give, and wants to give it to children. Gail’s big transition was to fulfill a key life area that matters most to her – parenting.

Jess and Family

I met Jess and her husband at breakfast, where we were all staying at a B&B. It was a brief, but fortuitous meeting – at least for me. First, we were the only native English-speaking guests at the breakfast table. Second, I was interested in starting a blog, and Jess already has one. Our conversation probably lasted all of 15 minutes, but it made a lasting impression on me.

Jess and her family are from London, and moved within the Eurozone to warm and sunny coastal Spain. She and her husband have portable work and can support the family from anywhere. The family later relocated inland, away from resort areas, for full immersion in Spanish culture. This major change was a strategic move.  Jess and her husband want their kids to be bilingual and bicultural. Cost of living was also part of the rationale for change. Almost anywhere in Spain is cheaper to live than London, which means more resources for family travel. The icing on the cake? Jess’s business is a world-wide lodging resource for travelers; and when her family travels, they check out those lodgings featured here.

This is how you create the lifestyle you want!

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Les Cols Pavellons is close to the Garrotxa Volcanic Nature Reserve. The property offers guests zen décor rooms with glass floors and walls. This beautiful setting brings the outdoors in.

Dany / Thijs

Dany and Thijs quit their jobs and moved to Valencia, Spain from the Netherlands. One of them was a Type A kind of guy, in a high-stress profession, who was on the verge of becoming a nervous wreck. What’s the antidote for a Type A personality? Immersion in yoga and meditation. If geography could also improve his outlook and resources, then cheaper, sunny Valencia was the answer. Dany got on board with the plan and together they moved to a place in the sun.

Dany and Thijs figured out the lifestyle they wanted to have and conceived a business to make it happen. That business became an award-winning B&B.  They leveraged their talents to create a welcoming and artsy environment for their guests. And, every year, they reward themselves with extensive travel in the off-season. As one of them told me, “I don’t worry about the future.”

I admired what he said, and wondered what it would be like to not worry about the future….

Valencia Beach

Valencia Beach

Turia Gardens

Turia Gardens

So, how was I inspired?

It takes courage and intention to “get a life.”  It takes a certain amount of introspection and honesty about your priorities to figure out if change is necessary, and what it would mean to you (or your family).

As a practical, somewhat risk-averse, single woman, I am my own safety net. About a year ago, I realized my job had begun to feel like a real grind. I was in an energy-draining loop of home-to-work-to-home (and maybe a tennis match in the evening). And, that was not the healthy life I pictured for myself after battling breast cancer!  Having a balanced life was something I always talked about, and mine was feeling anything but.  I decided I would “get a life.”

Now, I am working out my own “rat-race” exit strategy. I’m putting my energy toward being creative and other things about which I’m passionate. And, my eyes are wide open for opportunities to enjoy life and make a difference.

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The Best Pork Comes From Happy Pigs

I stopped eating pork many years ago, and I can’t even remember why.  For the last six years, though, it’s because of my diet. Pork is on the “Avoid” list. My body has become very sensitive to pork, and reacts badly to it.

Before I left for vacation in Spain, my friend, Mazie, and I were on the hunt in D.C. for a special Spanish jamon (ham) called Iberico de Bellota. On a tip, Mazie found Iberico de Bellota at Canales Deli in Eastern Market. It cost $67 for less than a half pound.

I asked Mazie what was so great about this particular pork. She said the pigs are raised to forage on acorns, and the meat has an extraordinary taste. She insisted I try a piece of the precious ham. I agreed to taste just a sliver, and took a chance on the pig’s acorn diet. I ate the sliver and fully expected to suffer in short order.

Expected to bloat. Didn’t happen.

Expected severe stomach cramps. Didn’t happen.

Expected to become violently ill. Didn’t happen.

(I was both relieved and impressed!)

This is what I’ve learned about the pigs. “Bellota” means acorn. These pigs are raised in a region of western Spain on pastures with oak tree groves. Certain pigs are selected to finish their lives foraging a pasture for herbs, wild mushrooms, and grasses, and, especially, acorns. The pigs are allowed to do what pigs naturally do — dig, roam, and forage for their food. They are considered “semi-wild,” and the Spanish government strictly regulates the Iberico de Bellota bloodline for quality and integrity.

In contrast, pigs raised in crowded industrial livestock operations nose-to-tail with other pigs suffer. I’ve read that pigs raised in this unhealthy environment are so stressed they often eat each others’ tails. I’ve also read that these industrial operations often supply pork to U.S. supermarkets.

Know this, if you find Iberico de Bellota cured ham in the U.S., it came from a very special, healthy and happy pig.

Iberico de Bellota ham comes from the pig’s hind leg.  It is hung and cured for at least two years, complete with the pata negra, or black hoof. The black hoof distinguishes Iberico de Bellota from other hams, like Serrano. It has only been sold in the U.S. since 2008, sin pata negra (without black hoof).

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Carving slices of jamon Iberico de bellota outside a tapas bar in Madrid.

Jamon for sale at Mercado San Miguel (Madrid)

Jamon for sale at Mercado San Miguel (Madrid)

Jamon Iberico de bellota for sale at Mercat Central (Valencia)

Jamon Iberico de bellota for sale at Mercat Central – Valencia

Now, about the ham and its taste… The color is more magenta than pink, like the typical American ham. The meat is nicely marbled with fat. I rolled it around in my mouth before chewing and experienced an almost buttery texture. Instead of cutting away the fat, I ate it. As for the taste? It was sublime.

My first taste of Jamon Iberico de Bellota was before I went to Spain. Madrid’s gastronomy is very pork-centric; so I was happy to know I could experience that part of Spanish cuisine, and easily find the ham there. From what I could tell, it is the most expensive ham in Spain, though it is still much cheaper there than here in the U.S. It is so precious, in fact, that a native of Madrid, now living in Baltimore, has a guy in Madrid who vacuum-packs his Jamon Iberico de Bellota so he can stuff as much of it as he can inside the clothes he packs in his suitcase when he returns to the U.S.

By the end of my travels in Spain, I *got* it.  This pork is special. It is the only brand I will eat, although sparingly, and on rare occasions. The exception was my last night in Madrid:  I was the happy pig. I tore up a plate of tomatoes and a plate of Jamon Iberico de Bellota meant for two to share!

No shame or consequences!

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Balancing Travel – Part 6: The Long Trip Home

My well-planned and balanced trip to Spain exceeded expectations! Transfers between cities and modes of transportation were seamless. All was perfect…until it was time to come home.

Maybe it was that last rainy, windy, dismal day and night in Madrid…it was about 40 degrees outside and I was under-dressed. It was late May, after all, and I had packed for heat in Spain; not chilly rain. Add to that my cheap attack that led me to stay in a lousy hotel. The morning of my flight, I was finally ready to go.

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But first, some good stuff.  The first leg of my flight from Madrid to Philadelphia was uneventful, which is always a good thing. I made a friend from Brussels while waiting for my next flight. You’d think Mollie and I had known each other for more than a minute. We exchanged numbers and email, and said we’d meet again. I also had a delicious, though premium-priced, meal at the airport and was able to charge my devices at the bar.

Now, for the hot mess.

The airline cancelled my flight from Philadelphia to Baltimore-Washington International Airport because of the weather. I managed to book another flight that would leave about three hours later than the original. Mind you, home was tantalizingly close — less than three hours’ drive away — making the delay all the more brutal. I considered taking the train, and then realized my checked bag would arrive at BWI without me. I let that idea go. I ate another meal and found ways to kill time, including losing my cell phone, retracing my steps all over the terminal, and finally retrieving the phone from the person who found it right as my flight was boarding.

I arrived in Baltimore around 9:50 p.m; my bag did not. I realized I’d left my house key and driver’s license in it. So, I called my sister, Cheryl, who had a copy of my house key. Luckily, she was still up and said she’d bring it and meet me curbside outside the baggage claim area.

Meanwhile, a Bulgarian guy was also at the lost baggage counter looking lost himself. (I knew his nationality because I had glanced at his passport when we were in Philly.) The lost baggage lady couldn’t communicate with him to find out where to deliver his bags; I couldn’t either. Then, it dawned on me that I could call my Bulgarian friend, Krisi. By then, it was around 10:45 p.m. I hesitated to call her at that hour, but the lost guy looked pitiful. I called her, anyway.

Krisi became the interpreter between the lost baggage lady and the lost Bulgarian. I was happy to help, and happy my friend could help. Hopefully, things got sorted out because my sister arrived curbside and I needed my phone back. Cheryl gave me the key.

I had to wait almost two hours for my prepaid shuttle van because the service was also affected by flight delays. The van dropped me off at home – finally – around 1:30 a.m. As the shuttle van pulled away, I realized I had a problem. I put the key in my door lock:  it didn’t turn. The key looked like my house key, but it wasn’t. Crap. My sister was no longer answering her phone. (Thanks a lot, Cheryl.)

Lesson learned:  Don’t pack your house key and driver’s license in the bag you check at the airport. 

I put my vacation after-glow on pause….

I didn’t want to wake the neighbors at that hour with my sad, embarrassing tale. I was exhausted and only had a little bit of charge left on my cell phone. I called a cab and waited for it while curled up on top of my car trunk, using my backpack as a pillow. It was actually a warm night in Maryland, unlike my last night in Madrid. For all my efforts to economize my travel, I ended up paying for another night in a hotel and the cab fare to get there. Home:  tantalizingly close, for real, and I couldn’t even get in the door.

Cheryl wasn’t able to bring me the right key until around 2 p.m. the next day; and the airline delivered my luggage about 12 hours later in the middle of the night.

HELLO, HOME!!

The tail end of my travel was messy, but it didn’t detract from my great experience in Spain. Once I was back in my house and my luggage delivered, my equilibrium and vacation after-glow were restored!

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Valencia oranges

Balancing Travel – Spain: The End


Balancing Travel – Part 5: Alicante and Madrid

Hola, Alicante! We meet again!

When I returned to Alicante by train, I stayed for three days. I think Alicante and other towns on the Costa Blanca are to Scandinavians and Brits, what Florida is to North Americans. The weather in southern Spain is definitely warmer than Madrid. At first, I was underwhelmed by Alicante because I was comparing it to Valencia.  But then … I really got into it and took in the city’s charm.

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Alicante (Renfe) Train Station

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A little park in Alicante

My hotel, Eurostars Lucentum, was in a superb location for public, rail, and airport transportation; easy walking distance of the Esplanada and Castillo de Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara Castle); and across the street from Mercado Central (Central Market). The hotel was convenient to a street with a long row of very good restaurants, and a theatre where “Les Miserables” was playing.

Every morning I went across the street to a cool little cafe called Tres Semillas to use the wifi. Tres Semillas’ motto is “We are what we eat,” and they don’t use artificial ingredients or genetically modified products. Even though I don’t eat pastries, I enjoyed the fresh juice and great tea selections. And, by the way, I love their motto! (Reminds me of something “Ms. Daisy” would say!)

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Mercado Central

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La Esplanada – Alicante

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Tres Semillas Obrador – Alicante

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Downtown Alicante with Santa Barbara Castle in background

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Hog head for sale – Mercado Central (Alicante)

People were friendly and helpful in Alicante. I kind of had a conversation in Spanish at a gift shop that sold magic elves and gnomes, and other collectibles. I said, “Tengo comprar uno regalo por mama.” It got the job done and I pointed out what I wanted. When I tried to speak Spanish other times, I could only think of French words. When a French couple spoke to me, I was mute and couldn’t think of anything to say.  I just nodded and smiled.

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Elfos dolls

I found an organic vegetarian restaurant called Biomenu, while walking around the historic part of the city.  It must have been torture for the owner because we weren’t able to communicate… at first. I tried something I call “SPREMGLISH” — a jarring blend of Spanish, French, Mime, and English. I ordered one of the fresh juices from the menu, and, somehow also ordered an omelet and vegetables that were not on the menu, as well as fruit and tea. After that, the owner automatically prepared my meal when she saw me coming …and I was there every morning.

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With only three days in Alicante, I picked the day with the best weather to go to the beach. The hotel concierge recommended I take the trolley to San Juan Beach, which was far nicer than the city’s beach. I caught the trolley at the end of the hotel’s block. It was a scenic ride. For the most part, the trolley followed the shoreline. Here’s a tip should you ever take a trolley from Alicante to San Juan Beach: there is no trolley stop called “San Juan Beach.” Get off at the “London” stop or, like me, you will watch the trolley move away from the shoreline and the sea will recede in the rear window. At that point, I wondered had I missed my stop. Well, yes, I had; and after I got off that trolley, it was a bit of a wait for the next one headed in the opposite direction. The beach was worth the mild misstep in getting there:  I hung out half the day.

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I saved Castillo de Santa Barbara for my last day in the city. It was overcast, and threatened to rain. Luckily, it didn’t. On my way there, I came across a discreet little museum called Museo de Fogueres. So, I went in — free admission! —  and saw exhibits about the Bonfires of Saint John Festival, held annually in June. Historic, humorous, and whimsical figures of various sizes are built to burn in the fires. Some figures from each festival become ninots indultados, as they are the ones “pardoned” from the flames and given refuge in the museum.

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After I left the little museum, I walked to the castle. I bought a ticket inside the tunnel entrance; and continued through it to the elevator that took me to the castle’s upper levels. Castillo de Santa Barbara is probably the highest point in the area, and has a commanding view of metro Alicante.

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Overall, it took me a minute to warm up to Alicante, but I’d enjoy another visit someday. I had some great meals and good shopping – though I’m not much of a shopper. I tried to find some art galleries, but either there were none or no one could understand my SPREMGLISH. Oh, well!  I enjoyed the final convenience of my hotel’s location by walking across the street to catch the airport bus for my return flight to Madrid.

Hola, Madrid! We meet again!  

Madrid was my last stop the day before my flight home.  It was cold, windy, and rainy, compared to Alicante. The hotel was a bust. I went for the best deal in price rather than neighborhood, which had me on high alert while out and about at night. The hotel was supposed to be a 4-star, but I’ve seen better rooms at the YMCA. That hotel’s shameful breakfast buffet was unforgivable! Truly, you get what you pay for.

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Museo del Prado Madrid (Photo courtesy of Fotosearch Stock Photos)

The Prado Museum was the priority for my final hours in Spain. After 5 pm, it’s free. (You see, in the D.C. area, we are spoiled by our free Smithsonian museums.) There was a long queue to enter the museum, and I waited in the rain. I managed to spend just two hours at the Prado before it closed, and left feeling incomplete in my cultural experiences in Madrid.

There is more of Madrid I’d like to explore, and I will return; especially, to visit its world-class museums — the Prado, Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen- Bornemisza. That’s a promise.

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Next:  Balancing Travel – Part 6:  The Long Trip Home


Balancing Travel – Part 4 – Valencia

Hola, Valencia!

I arrived in Valencia by train from Alicante. I spent five days there — the longest at any destination during my two weeks in Spain. I stayed at Valencia Mindfulness Retreat, a bed and breakfast in the historic heart of the city. The B&B itself was a highlight with its charm, architectural details, style, and friendly hosts.  As a solo traveler, I liked the daily family-style breakfasts with diverse guests — Dutch, Italian, and British (while I was there). I loved being the only American guest!  Valencia Mindfulness Retreat is in easy walking or cycling distance of most sights. Yoga and meditation were available; I did both. My days in Valencia were a balance of leisure and exploration.

I visited popular sites in Valencia, like:

  • Basilica of Our Lady of the Forsaken – The Basilica flanked Plaza de Virgen, where people hung out, strolled around, or rode through on bikes.
  • Mercat Central – This market was almost overwhelming. Hams were hung like clothes on a rack; and there was a massive variety of fruits, vegetables, spices, and fish for sale. You could also order paella and other food-to-go. I noticed that in Spanish markets the meat might have an anatomical attachment that you won’t see in the typical U.S. supermarket –  like a head, hoof, or feet…or, maybe only the head will be in the meat case… or, you might see the entire defrocked animal.  All options are there!
  • La Lonja de la Seda – This UNESCO World Heritage Site housed the Silk Exchange in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s a magnificent structure near Mercat Central. I put my camera on zoom to see the building’s architectural detail, and saw freaky gargoyles. I did a double-take, like…is that what I think it is? (By the way, gargoyles have a purpose other than warding off bad spirits, such as diverting water from a building – like a gutter. Well, that’s certainly one explanation for that appendage!)
  • City of Arts and Sciences – The science complex was architecturally fabulous — designed by Santiago Calatrava — and includes an Oceanografico (aquarium) and IMAX cinema. The interactive exhibits at the Principe Felipe Museum of Science were just so-so, but it’s probably a good museum for families and children.
  • Jardins del Turia (Turia Gardens) – This extensive park has athletic fields, bike and walking paths, and gardens. Turia Gardens is an awesome place to be active and outdoors in the city. This was the original site of the Turia River. The river flooded Valencia in the 1950s; so, like a biblical punishment, the city diverted the river; and converted the dry riverbed into a recreational park. (Poor river! I never did see where it was banished.)
  • Beach – It was a nice, long bike ride to the beach, which was very broad with smooth sand for days, and framed by mountains. It was mid-May and early in the season, and warm enough to bask on the beach awhile without the crowds. Loved it!

I found less touristy spots, like:

  • Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia.  The star here was not the art, dominated by Madonnas and cherubim. The real star was the elegant museum cafe where I was seated outdoors in the courtyard. I had a wonderful salt-encrusted dorade (a Mediterranean fish) with roasted vegetables. The meal and wine were served with all the flair of a fine dining establishment for less than 25 euros. When the server brought the fish out, I thought there was no way I could eat the entire fish. But, when he gently pounded the salt casing to release the succulent flesh, and filleted it and arrayed it on the plate, the portion looked very manageable. It was literally head and tail above any other museum cafe food I’ve ever had.
  • Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (IVAM) – I loved this museum where I discovered Valencian artist, Miquel Navarro. IVAM has a permanent collection of his sculptures and watercolors. The museum pamphlet describes his work as “a true symbiosis between body and architecture. Warriors, phallic symbols and totems transform their selves into bridges and fountains. Buildings, as well as cities, have organic similarities with the human body.” It was fascinating and I certainly couldn’t miss the phallic symbols; they were everywhere in his collection.
  • Museu d’Historia de Valencia – The museum used to be a water supply station. The art and Valencian history were creatively displayed.
  • L’Almoina Valencia – There, I viewed Roman and Arab archaeological excavations through a glass floor. It was unusual to see the history of Valencia in this way. Very cool!

I did other things, too, like:

  • Explored the historic quarter on foot, and helped a guy cook paella on the street.
  • Rented a bike.
  • Hung out at outdoor cafes with gelato, tea, or a glass of wine.
  • Photographed murals and graffiti that were everywhere — on construction barriers, shop doors, garage doors…. It was here that I fell in love with graffiti and street art, and now have hundreds of photos.

Another highlight was “The OMG! Meal” I had at an organic / local food restaurant I found called Kiaora Biocucina. Chef Yelel Canas graciously prepared my fish selection on the prix fixe menu, gluten-free. I had the kind of attentive service and multiple courses that I didn’t expect there. Kiaora was an unpretentious little spot, whose decor featured a large mural of a green mountain and a speck view of the chef’s family farm. Chef Canas is proud of his food philosophy, and local cuisine, and is happy to talk with patrons about his culinary creations. Amazing and delicious! (Update:  Chef Canas has left Valencia and will be opening a restaurant in Barcelona in Spring 2015. I will find him again. Bet on it!)

Valencia was all good. I had my poorest showing in communicating with people here because the people favored the local language, Valencian (a Catalan dialect), over Spanish. It wasn’t that much of an obstacle at restaurants or getting around, though. I’d return in a heartbeat and stay at the same place.  There is more of the city to  explore — my only regret is that I missed the Sunday flea market.  Next time!

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Next:  Balancing Travel  – Part 5 – Alicante


Balancing Travel – Part 3 – Albir

Hola, Costa Blanca!

Alicante is about 400 miles south of Madrid on the Costa Blanca. I had no idea that this area was semi-arid and so mountainous. I caught a 7 a.m. flight so I could maximize my first day at the yoga retreat. The sea and mountains were a dramatic change of scenery from Spain’s big city!

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A shuttle van took me to the yoga retreat, La Crisalida, in nearby Albir. When I checked in, the desk manager told me “the hike” would start in 10 minutes, if I was interested. I dropped my bags in the casita I would share with someone; grabbed my camera and water bottle; and was ready to go. The only hikers were John (who owns the yoga retreat with his wife, Lisa) and me.  So, we got to know each other a little bit.

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I didn’t know to where, or how far, we would hike.  We walked through the neighborhood and then followed a path up and around a mountain. The sea views were stunning. About halfway up, John pointed to some little speck in the distance and said we were headed there, to the lighthouse, a gradual three miles up the mountain.  Before he’d even told me that, I had silently noted I was sleep-deprived — having gone to bed very late and gotten up very early to catch the airport bus; hadn’t eaten and was hiking on an empty stomach; and…possibly, wearing the wrong shoes. John was moving at a fast clip, and I wasn’t going to be outdone. I just hoped I wouldn’t get dizzy and fall out on my first day there.

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As it happened, I survived. I took photos of the mountain, the sea, and the lighthouse. The blue of the sea was all I had imagined. I was also impressed with my sneakers!

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When we returned to La Crisalida, I had to wait for lunch time to eat. (Thank goodness for my emergency stash of dark chocolate!) The retreat’s owners and guests all happened to speak English. (I loved being the only American!) Meals were family-style. We had two delicious fresh juices and three amazing vegan meals each day. (La Crisalida’s chef accommodated my gluten-free request. I had notified the retreat in advance.) In turn, I got with the retreat’s  “de-tox” program during my stay and, after that initial moment of desperation, left my stash of dark chocolate alone.

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There were scheduled activities: guests could do anything, or nothing at all. I did everything. Every day, I took two yoga classes; a hike; the rebounding class; meditative watercoloring; and participated in the special evening programs. If it hadn’t been a little cool out, I would have been in the pool, too.

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My stay at the yoga retreat was the perfect antidote to Madrid’s pace, jetlag, and solo travel in a country where I didn’t speak the language. I got along well with my roommate, Alexa (from London), who stayed the whole week. The staff was amazing and so helpful, especially when I struggled with my on-line train reservation to Valencia — not easy to do at all!

I’d return to La Crisalida anytime. I was inspired by the stories other guests shared with me. And, after three days there, I felt refreshed when I left for Valencia.

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Next Stop:  Balancing Travel (Part 4) – Valencia


Balancing Travel- Part 2 – Madrid

Hola, Madrid!

Three nights in Madrid bookended my travel in Spain, and kicked off my birthday celebration. I started with two nights at the five-star Hotel Silken Puerta America. Believe me, it was a real treat! Each floor had different interior designers. Mine was ultra-modern and the room appointments were high-tech. (I loved the elliptical-shaped doorless shower.) Hotel staff even had to show me how to work the room lights and operate the window blinds! So, in some ways, design trumped function, but it was a five-star experience nonetheless.

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The hotel’s breakfast buffet had all I needed to recharge my energy after the overnight flight. It featured different types of ham, spanish omelets, roasted vegetables, Manchego and other regional cheese, pastries, breads, fruit, fresh-squeezed juice, tea…. Yum!  I found the buffet immediately after I checked into the hotel because I was starved.  Of course, I went back for seconds…and back to the buffet the next morning, too!

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I hit the streets with a light agenda of exploring historic Madrid and a few other sights. I love public transit and got around the city on foot, bus, and train. Madrid’s Metro is a world-class system. And, you can even borrow a book from an actual library — almost like a capsule —  on the subway platform! I haven’t seen that anywhere else… so far. (My hotel, by the way, was in the Salamanca district, near two subway stations and the bus line to the airport.)

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First, I went to Palacio Real de Madrid (Madrid Royal Palace) near Metro Opera. I didn’t go inside. I wasn’t wowed by the exterior, or the gardens and grounds compared to what I’ve seen in a few other European capitals; it looked so sterile. I moved on to the Almudena Cathedral and Crypt in the same area as the Palace. Entry was the modest price of 1 euro. This cathedral is “brand new” compared to many other European cathedrals. Construction started in the late 19th century, and Pope John Paul II consecrated it in the 1990s. The Cathedral and Crypt were impressive.

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Historic Madrid was in walking distance of the Cathedral near Opera and La Latina Metro stations. Now that’s the kind of area I love to explore: a maze of narrow streets lined with tapas restaurants and shops, and tucked-away gardens and parks.

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Speaking of tapas…Madrid cuisine is all about el jamon (the ham) and small dishes. I went to Mercado San Miguel, a fresh food market in historic Madrid.  Being there was a kind of exotic experience, especially compared to the get-in and get-out convenience of many American supermarkets — stocked with mostly boxed, canned, and frozen foods. Ever practical, I was also at the market to match food to the Spanish name, so I would know what to eat or avoid, according to my blood type diet.  For example, el pulpo (octopus) is on my avoid list, and not just because of its looks (not shown here). But, do see el rape (monkfish), shown below — it’s ugly, bless its little heart, but, when cooked, it’s great to eat Mediterranean style.

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They do siesta in Madrid, but I only had two full days in the city and didn’t want to take time to nap.  I fought through jet lag and was determined to get into the Spanish rhythm of late night dinners. Madrilenos don’t even think about dinner before 9 p.m. If you see anyone eating before then, they’re probably American or British. After dinner, I finally went back to the hotel to rest up for the next day’s main event.

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Day Two was the Madrid Open. I’d read in Tennis magazine that the Madrid Open is one of the best second-tier tournaments — after the Grand Slam events — because of its intimate venue and the top players in the tournament draw. It is also one of the clay court events leading up to the French Open. The show court is in La Caja Magica (Magic Cube) — a stadium with a trippy design and great seats all-around.   I had already nailed down my travel dates and airfare when I found out the tournament would be held while I was in Madrid. I was thrilled…so, I bought my ticket on-line to the quarterfinals. Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, and Maria Sharapova were the stars I saw play; but, didn’t see Serena because she had pulled out of the quarters.

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The only negative at La Caja Magica was that there were no good options for real food. Vendors offered pizza, hotdogs, and ice cream, and the like. As culinarily-inclined as Spain is, the organizers could have done better than that. The one place I did get something to eat — and it couldn’t possibly count as a meal — was a gluten-free bakery called Celicioso. Well, Celicioso was “delicioso”…for real.  Though sugar is not my friend, I bought the bakery’s tennis ball cupcake to celebrate my birthday, and thoroughly enjoyed it!

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But, one cannot live on gluten-free cupcakes alone. When I heard Serena was out of the tournament, I left La Caja Magica. At that point, I was desperate for some real food. I went back to La Latina and found a pinxto bar called Lamiak. Pinxto is the Catalonian name for a type of tapas, and bread is usually part of it. I told the chef I’m gluten-free, and he graciously offered to de-construct all the pinxtos I ordered. My food arrived as a gourmet presentation minus the bread. It was so delicious and beautiful that I ordered a second round.

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A “de-constructed” pintxo: tomato, goat cheese, and carmelized onion; and guacamole with smoked cod.

Still jet lagged, I didn’t slow down at all! In Madrid, I hung with the locals; ate a late dinner around 10:30 p.m., drank wine, and stayed out in the streets until the wee hours. But, after two days there, I needed the yoga retreat.

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Next: Balancing Travel – Part 3 – Albir