A visit home

It’s been great to have my energy back again! The new estrogen patch seems to be working well for me. I’ve been on it for a week solid and I finally feel like I’m firing on all cylinders again.

Sleep is pretty good. I do get hot spells, but they’re manageable. My new routine for the evening is to turn off the heat and open the bedroom window enough to let the cool night air inside. When I get hot, usually just turning back the top quilt is enough to cool me down, and if not I’ll toss off the other two layers (a blanket and top sheet) if needed. I have the fan with remote control in position just in case, but rarely have had to use it. In the morning, the house is usually around 60 F when I get up — which makes for a chilly start to the day — but the thermostat is just outside the bedroom door.

I’m still allowing myself more time to rest and taking on less, too. Despite my new energy, I’m still healing inside. Last Saturday, for example, I had plans to attend a potluck party in the evening. A chance to go on a short hike that morning popped up, but I declined because I didn’t want to totally pack my Saturday. It turned out to be a good call.

However, there are some stressors over which I have little control. A few weeks ago I was urged by sister and stepfather to get back to Chicago soon for a visit with Mom. I had been planning a trip back to Chicago in late June this year to attend sister’s wedding celebration, but they told me not to wait that long.

I had to figure out how to fit a trip back to Chicago in the near term into my budget and schedule, so I went hunting for cheap fares online. I found a flight on Southwest that worked out for my schedule, and not *too* bad on my budget.

I depart on Wednesday, and I plan to spend two days with Mom: Saturday and Monday. Sunday will be a day of rest and relaxing  (I hope!), and the rest of the days are work days. Sadly, I can’t get work to pay for the trip since there is no business need for me to visit Chicago, but at least I won’t have to burn up a lot more PTO, and should retain enough for all the medical stuff I have to schedule in this year.

This trip is really stressing me out, and I’m not entirely sure why. There are plenty of possible reasons. It may be because:

  • I’m dreading seeing my mother. Talking with her weekly I get an idea of how poorly she’s doing, but that’s not the same as experiencing it in person.
  • I’m still mending and not feeling up to the rigors of packing and travel.
  • I’m leaving behind my personal comforts: the new friends I’ve made, my dog, and the little “nest” I’ve been building in the rental house.
  • I’m leaving behind the glorious weather (sunny, warm, lots of greenery and flowers from the plentiful March rain) and heading into a typical Midwest spring. (There was snow in Chicago on Saturday, and it was 70 F there yesterday.)

And, then there is answer E: All of the Above.

The stress is manifesting itself in waking up with a worried mind, and heartburn. I’ve been combating the first by writing down lists of things I need to do. The last one is a new development for me, and I had to pick up some OTC meds at the pharmacy to keep on hand.

I’ve been experimenting with different Bay Area airports over the past year, and this will be my first time flying in/out of Oakland International Airport. It’s both good and bad that the flight leaves Oakland at 6 AM: good because there should be little traffic on the expressway at that time of day, so my drive from Napa should take just over an hour; bad, because it means I need to get up at 4 AM. *gulp*

Part of my time this past weekend was spent online researching how much time to allow for the drive to the airport, what amenities are at the airport, and what amenities are on the flight. I’m a pretty good flyer, but that’s because I prepare for my personal comfort in advance. (Maybe that should be a separate blog post some day.)

M will drive me to the airport and take over house-sitting duties (mainly Hannah care) while I’m gone. On the Chicago end, sister will pick me up at Midway Airport and I’ll stay with her and her guy for a few nights. Come the weekend, I’ll pick up a rental car near their house and drive down to the south suburbs to stay with my friend A for the rest of the visit.

*Fingers crossed* all my prep goes as planned, and that I get a comfy seat on my early morning flight so I can sleep.

Most recent lesson

After today, I think I’m giving up on the surface transportation to San Francisco International Airport. I left my house at 5:30 AM to get to the transportation terminal where I caught a privately operated bus that runs from Napa to SFO.

As soon as I got on the bus, I knew I was doomed. The driver announced that the trip would take extra long since there was an accident near the Bay Bridge. As we creeped along I-80 through the East Bay, we ran into another accident and further delays. Much later, when we passed a sign saying it was 9 minutes to SFO and I knew my flight was finished boarding in 10 minutes I conceded defeat and called the corporate travel service.

I ended up on a completely different airline on a flight that left 5 hours later and got me to my destination (Atlanta) at 10 PM local time. I missed the welcome reception for my business meeting, but I made it for the real meetings that start tomorrow, at least.

I truly hope that I don’t get into problems when I submit my expenses because today’s travel fiasco cost an extra $700 in change fees and for a one-way ticket on a nearly full flight.

At least SFO is a great airport to hang out in. There is free wifi, lots of great places to eat and drink, and they even have a yoga room. (No, I didn’t use it since I was wearing business attire.) Everyone I encountered was very nice and even the 4+ hour flight in a middle seat wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had problems getting to the airport on time on the bus. It seems I’m always a fender bender away from missing my flight, and feeling very stressed about it. Next time I fly out of SFO, I’m going to try driving only part way to the BART station and then getting on the train. At least I would avoid the really heavy traffic areas that start near Pinole and continue into San Francisco.

Now to go sink into my (hopefully) comfy bed and get a few hours of sleep.

Here we go!

I’ve spent the past two weeks focusing on work and getting lots of rest at my friend’s house. Now it’s time to hit the road. I’ll be departing in just over an hour, shortly after my sister and driving companion arrives. (While I usually want to hit the road very early in the morning, we had to allow some time for her to get here first.)

Over the past week I’ve vacillated on which route to take: the northern route or the southern route? The northern route goes through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and then into California through the Sierras. While there seems to be some decent weather along most of this route, there is a travel warning for the weekend along I-80 as it passes through the Sierras. The warning calls for up to 12 inches of snow and notes “be prepared for the weather.”

So while I was hopeful the past few days that we could take the shorter, more direct route on I-80, it just seems really unwise at this point. I’m hoping we can push through to Tulsa, OK tonight. Onwards!

Eating my way through Scotland

What better day to talk about food than the day after a huge feast? (I hope all my American readers enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving!) eemusings commented on a previous post that she wanted to hear more about the food I ate in Scotland. So it’s time to dish up the details. *hee, hee, hee*

I had one big constraint on my diet: I had to avoid cow milk, cream, and cheese. Way back in my late twenties I had realized that cow milk and cream caused problems for me, but a little lactose replacement usually helped. Unfortunately, earlier this year I found out I have diverticulitis. In the months since that diagnosis, I’ve discovered that eating lots of cow dairy causes enough irritation in my gut that it flares up. So it was important that I avoid cow dairy as much as possible on the trip. (I wasn’t the only person who had dietary constraints on the trip. My roommate and friend A was avoiding most high cholesterol foods like red meat and butter, as well as sugar. And there was a woman in our group that was so deathly allergic to gluten, beef, and eggs that she carried an Epipen.)

Before heading over to Scotland, I read up a bit about what types of foods I may encounter and developed a short “wish list” of things I wanted to try. Unfortunately, my cow dairy issue made it impossible for me to try cullen skink, which was a very popular (and delicious sounding) soup frequently on the starter menu. However, kippers and haggis were at the top of the list. I love oily fish like sardines, mackerel, and even anchovies. I’ve eaten canned kippered herring here, but it was nothing like the  kippers I enjoyed at breakfast many mornings. They were smoky, crispy, salty, and absolutely delicious!


One of our tour guides suggested that those of us who liked kippers should also try Arbroath smokies, but the few times I saw them on a menu they had been cooked in milk. 😦

I tried haggis on my first night in Scotland and found it very good, too. Apparently the spices and seasonings used in haggis can vary quite a bit from place to place, and the restaurant where I first tried it used lots of warm spices. The richness of the organ meats and texture of the oats still came through and made it a truly memorable dish. On Isle of Skye I had vegetarian haggis with my breakfast. While still very tasty, the lack of organ meats made the texture and mouthfeel quite different.

I expected the food to cost more than it does here in the States and budgeted accordingly. Also, this was a luxury tour and the hotels where we stayed and dined reflected that. Eating dinner at the same hotel where we were staying was usually the most convenient option because we were in country lodgings and not cities or large towns with lots of restaurants in walking distance. There were a few times that I ventured out via cab to other villages or into town to dine, but often I just ate at the hotel with the group or with A, who usually just wanted to be “in for the night” after a day of activities.

Full breakfast was always included with our lodgings and it was possible to really fill oneself up, too. Typically there would be cold breakfast items on a buffet table available for self-service: pastries, cereal, yogurt, cheese, cold cuts, and fresh or stewed dried fruit. Cooked breakfast items on the menu always included oatmeal porridge, as well as egg dishes such as eggs Benedict (usually with smoked salmon instead of ham/bacon), scrambled eggs, or “full Scottish breakfast.” The latter usually included fried eggs, sausage, bacon, grilled tomato, and black pudding (blood sausage).

As much as I really need protein at breakfast to keep me going, that was way too much heavy meat for me so I never ordered the “traditional” full Scottish breakfast. Bacon in the UK was very different than the bacon in the US. It was much more like ham or the true Canadian bacon I used to get in Toronto.

I usually ordered eggs at breakfast, and my lack of critical questioning of the preparation method led to problems only a few days into the trip. I’ve been making scrambled eggs at home without milk for so long that I forgot that it’s usually standard practice to add it. At the Lake of Menteith Hotel I had been eating scrambled eggs with smoked salmon every morning for breakfast, and I had also knowingly cheated on my no dairy rule one night by eating sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

(But oh my goodness, the gloriousness that is sticky toffee pudding made me want to cheat again and again! The tour organizer also became a big fan of sticky toffee pudding, despite being a self-confessed chocoholic. Although she had traveled to the UK several times, she had never tried this dessert. I was pleased to convert her and vicariously enjoy it through her.)

By the time we arrived at our hotel near Inverness (the famous Culloden House just outside the city), I had realized the error of my ways and knew I had to increase my dietary vigilance. I went to bed that night with a hot water bottle (such a quaint feature to find in our room!) clutched to my aching gut, and a firm resolve to both not let any cow dairy slip past my lips and increase my intake of high fiber foods. Obviously, the apples I had brought with me and was consuming every day were not enough. Luckily, I discovered how delicious stewed dried fruit can be the very next morning at breakfast.

I’m not sure if the challenges I was having finding greens and vegetables (prepared without cream) was due to the posh menus at the places we were staying or if this was typical of the Scottish diet in general. On the one hand, I admired the fact that the restaurant menus reflected the season, with lots of root vegetables accompanying the mains. On the other hand, I desperately missed greens and salads. I had expected to find kale, at least. Indeed, I did see kale growing quite thickly in fields in the southern parts of Scotland, yet when I was talking to one of the friendly Scots later in the trip about those fields she said they turned the sheep into them during the winter.

Besides growing lots of kale for animal fodder, the southern areas in Scotland also cultivated a lot of fruit, especially berries. We noticed hoop houses filled with dwarf fruit trees and bramble fruits, and our bus driver told us that strawberries and raspberries were heavily cultivated in the area. Once we entered the highlands we saw mostly animals (sheep and cattle) grazing instead of cultivated fields.

But back to the meals!

Breakfasts were not only ample, one could really feast during lunches and dinners, too. I noticed that many restaurants offered two to three course fixed price meals for lunch and early dinner, just like in Spain. I took advantage of one such special at a restaurant in Inverness. The concept behind The Joy of Taste — a restaurant operating by principles sounding very much like a co-op — intrigued me, so I took a cab from Culloden House into Inverness to enjoy a delicious dinner by myself. My starter featured seared calf liver served over a bed of delicious salad greens (yay!) and my main course was duck served with lots of broccoli, courgette, and saffron potatoes. Dessert was a polenta cake made with honey and bramble berries. That was one of my more memorable meals in Scotland, although the relatively low cost was offset by the price of the taxis I had to take to and from Culloden House. (I stretched out my enjoyment of Inverness that evening by walking along the River Ness for a bit before returning to the hotel.)

That wasn’t the first time I had duck while in Scotland. It seemed to be the more popular form of poultry in the country. The menus frequently featured beef, lamb, pork, and fish, but rarely offered chicken. Considering how ubiquitous and popular chicken is in the US, I found this rather remarkable. Another difference between US and Scotland was in the cuts of pork. The most common cut of pork I saw on menus was not chops, but fresh pork belly. (Although I did enjoy a starter of some braised pig cheeks at Cross Keys pub in Kippen).

Scotland is a land with an extensive coastline and many, many fresh water lakes and streams. (I was constantly amazed at the number of gushing springs and waterfalls I saw from the window of the bus as we drove through the Highlands. There was water everywhere.) Fish and seafood of all kinds were plentiful on menus. I dined on fish and chips twice during my trip, but tried to keep my consumption of fried fish minimal. Salmon — both fresh and hot or cold smoked — were also featured quite a bit. I suspect most of it was from the fish farms we frequently saw along the sea lochs and coastline and not wild caught, unfortunately.

As we arrived on the west coast, we found that the local specialty was langoustines, which were tasty little crustaceans, although they took a bit of work to eat.


Oh, and as for beverages, I enjoyed both ales and wine with dinner, but of course enjoyed the whisky the most. 🙂

Evening libation

Glorious Scotland

Fair warning: this is going to be a photo heavy post!

Scottish countryside can be stark, but it is stunningly beautiful. On our second day in Scotland, our group had a walking tour of Edinburgh. Our guide — a warm and knowledgeable gent who looked stunning in his kilt, tweed jacket, and hat (but I sadly can’t recall his name now) — told us we were in the least beautiful part of Scotland. We scoffed. On our return to Edinburgh at the end of the trip I recalled his words and acknowledged to myself how right he was.

Blue Scottish Sky

I expected that the weather would be cool and wet, but we enjoyed mostly clear weather and several days with bright blue skies.

Priory vault

This was a splurge vacation for me which featured luxury accommodations and fine dining. My friend A and I saved a bit of money by sharing a room, but it was still one of the mostly costly vacations I’ve ever taken. I think it was money well spent.

Sam the Gypsy horse

We covered a lot of territory in the 15 days we were there: Edinburgh, Lake of Menteith, Stirling, St. Andrews…

West Sands

The Cairngorms…

Bringing in the sheep

Inverness and its surrounds (including Loch Ness, Culloden Battlefield, and Clava Cairns)…

Setting sun

Isle of Skye…

On Isle of Skye

with its fabled Black Cuillin mountains…

Cuillin Hills

and lastly a charming country town in Argyll where I saw famous whirlpool, lots of local wildlife…

Grey seals

rode a small but sturdy horse up and down hills for many hours…

Me riding Arran

and may or may not have been assaulted by a spectral presence in the 16th century house at which we resided.

I would love to return to Scotland some day. Until then, I have many fond memories…and a small amount of whisky to enhance them.

Special photo


Photo details. (To see larger photos or the entire set, just click on a photo and it will take you to the Flickr set.)

  1. Edinburgh
  2. Inchmahome Priory, Lake of Menteith
  3. Castle Rednock, Port of Menteith
  4. West Sands, St. Andrews
  5. Leault Farm, Cairngorms
  6. Clava Cairns, outside Inverness
  7. Sligachan, Isle of Skye
  8. Portree, Isle of Skye
  9. Gulf of Corryvreckan, Argyll and Bute
  10. Cuillin Hills Hotel, Isle of Skye

American Airlines is lying to me

Could I be overlooking something in this email offer from American Airlines?

At 2:46 PM Central Time, I received the following offer email from American Airlines.

Capture of the “One Day Only” Cyber Monday fare sale sent by American Airlines.

Note the area circled above. The fare sale is valid until 11:59 p.m. central time today, November 26. So, I click the link to See all cities on sale…and here’s what I get.

The page American Airlines loads for today’s one-day only fare sale.

This offer has expired?! It’s only fifteen minutes since you sent the email, yet the offer that is good until 11:59 p.m. is expired already?! Someone has made a pretty big mistake with the links in the email campaign or the website is wrong. I’m going to have to go with the latter because trying to navigate on the site to get to the fare sale, I’m brought to the same page. WTF American Airlines?!

Travel log Spain: day five, Granada and Alhambra

The previous day and evening I had done a lot of moving around, so I was content to start the day slowly. After my visit to Mirador San Nicolás the evening before, I had returned to my room at the guesthouse where I finished the cheese bocadillo purchased that morning in Madrid, drank a beer, and then went to bed.

I slept deeply and long in the little cave-like alcove where the bed was located. Follow this link to see the room I inhabited at el Numero 8 to see what I mean about the bedroom. It was quiet and dark and very comforting, not claustrophobic at all despite the lack of windows. I slept until nearly 10 am, which is very unusual for me. When I finally got up I made some instant coffee and breakfast, then started reviewing my guidebook’s thorough information on Alhambra in preparation for my visit later that afternoon. I took a break in my planning to wash a load of laundry and hang it out to dry. Finally at around noon I filled my water bottle, packed a few more snacks (another piece of fruit, some nuts) and left the room to get on about the day.

In order to manage the flow and impact of the numerous people who visit Alhambra every year, there are strict rules about entering the Alhambra grounds. When an entrance ticket is purchased, a time to enter the Nasrid palaces — the jewel of the Alhambra complex of buildings — is chosen by the purchaser or assigned by the tour operator. I had chosen an entry time of 15:30 (3:30 pm) because that block didn’t seem quite as full at the time I purchased my ticket online a few weeks before leaving Chicago.

Since I had an afternoon entry for the palaces, the entry rules further dictate that the earliest I could enter the grounds was 14:00. The guidebook recommended entering the grounds at least 30 minutes before the time on the palace ticket as there was a long walk from the grounds entrance to the palace entrance. It was further recommended that the other aspects of the Alhambra complex — the fort or alcazaba, the Generalife gardens, and the palace of Charles V — be visited before the Nasrid palaces, if possible.

I had retrieved my ticket and scoped out the entrance the day before, so I had a some piece of mind about how long it would take me to get up to the entrance and no worries about getting stuck in a long ticket line. When I left my guesthouse at noon, I had plenty of time to catch the bus, so I decided to spend an hour viewing some of Granada’s other sites first.

It’s not hard to spot the cathedral around which the oldest (Christian) parts of town are centered, so I headed down a street along the backside of the cathedral in search of the main plaza. Along the way, I stopped to buy some tea from an outdoor vendor with a huge selection of loose teas and herbs. Several of my friends like tea so I thought it would make a good souvenir. (I wish I had thought to take a photo of the beautiful and fragrant booth!) I stumbled into the Plaza Pescadaria first, then finally into the big Plaza Bib-Rambla. (Passing the first of several yarn stores I noticed in southern Spain!)

Sculpture in Plaza Pescadaria, Granada

Sculpture in Plaza Pescadaria, Granada

I made my way to a stop for the Alhambra bus at about 13:00, and made it to the entrance at 14:00 as planned. After entering through the checkpoint and splurging on an audioguide, I started the walk through the grounds towards the main sights.

I was hungry for lunch now and had not packed much to eat besides a KIND bar and an apple that I’d already consumed. My guidebook noted that there were few places to eat inside the Alhambra grounds, but it did mention that one of the restaurants had good sandwiches for takeout. Unfortunately this proved to be incorrect information, and my only other restaurant choice was an even more expensive one at the parador on site. I had a little over 20€ on me, and while I did have a credit card I didn’t want to splurge on an expensive (and lengthy) lunch. (Plus I had to surrender my photo ID when I rented the audioguide, and since using a credit card would require a photo ID I would have problems.)

Like many other suckers, then, I was left with no choice but to buy a sandwich from a vending machine for my lunch. First I had to break my 20€ bill, though, and I was glad to visit a vendor selling chips and packaged snacks to do just that. I took my bag of chips and vending machine sandwich (salmon salad on the Spanish equivalent of Wonder bread) to a bench in the sun and enjoyed the surroundings, at least.

The Alhambra is just stunning. It’s an overwhelming feast for the eyes and senses, which makes it a great challenge to write about and to share with photography.

The Wine Gate, Alhambra

The Wine Gate, Alhambra

It’s also nearly always packed with people, so it’s hard to get a clear shot of the amazing architecture. (Although at times it’s good to have some people in the photo to show the scale, such as in the photo above.)

After my lunch I entered the Charles V palace for a bit, but I had no time to visit the the museums housed inside. Despite getting to the grounds 90 minutes early, I only had 30 minutes left before my ticketed entrance time for the Nasrid palaces of 15:30. I wandered back out of the Charles V palace thinking I may be able to quickly visit the fort, but with such a short period of time open I decided instead to refresh myself with a small glass of cerveza.

Once I was through the checkpoints and in the palace I went a bit camera crazy. The details in the architecture were just so fascinating to me. I had little sense of time passing as I wandered the complex taking photo after photo. It was impossible for me to capture the fine details on the ceilings with my little point and shoot camera, yet I tried to do so over and over. I took photos of door hardware and tilework, too. My photo collection from the Nasrid Palaces is a mix of macro and micro.

The famous Court of the Lions was blocked off for restoration, but the beautiful Court of Lindaraja was a fine sight.

Court of Lindaraja

Court of Lindaraja

And then, you’re done. It seems rather unceremonious to wander outside the walls into a garden area with no discernible exit to the rest of the grounds. (Not just unceremonious, but potentially inconvenient, too. I overheard one woman go off on her husband/partner: “Stop f*cking with your camera and help me find the way out of here!” I was desperate for the restroom at this point, yet not in a meltdown, at least! And, yes, she was speaking American English so it was very easy for me to understand her.)

After I found the way out, too, and visited a restroom I noticed that the grounds were pretty empty at this point. It was near 17:00 and I needed to turn my audioguide back within an hour, but I had yet to visit the fort, so quickly made my way to the entrance. Perched at the very end of the high peninsula of the Alhambra, the fort has spectacular views. But that’s about all it has.

Opposite view

An opposite view: looking at Mirador San Nicolas from the Alhambra fort

It was interesting to see all the people gathering at Mirador San Nicolás from the other side, but there wasn’t much else to admire. I was in and out of the fort in about 15 minutes, then made my way back to where I entered Alhambra. Instead of riding the crowded bus back down into town, I instead walked the tranquil Cuesta de los Chinos path just outside the walls, ending up next to the small remains of the Rio Darro.

I had been walking a lot, so I felt no guilt in catching the bus up into the Albaicín quarter, where I stopped at the small market to buy a bottle of red wine and a green pepper, and was gifted with some fresh bread rolls by the proprieter. Back at the guesthouse I made a small tapas plate of sauteed green pepper, cheese, and the fresh bread rolls with some wine. (Why didn’t I note anything from the wine label? It was a local red and it was delicious.) I took my plate up to the rooftop terrace to relax and enjoy the last of the sunshine.

Then I heard the guesthouse host talking with someone in English and met the newest occupant, another single woman traveler from the U.S. We chatted for a few minutes and then parted as she went to unpack and I took my morning laundry off the clotheslines and down to my room. But she and I met up again and made plans to go to dinner that night.

One of the things that had concerned me about taking this trip by myself was that I would feel lonely at night, and especially during the evening meal. I was excited to have dinner with another person, and it seemed even better than she was an American woman traveling solo, too. I imagined we could swap tips and stories with each other and have a fun time.

The actual event was OK, but it also made me realize what I had avoided by traveling on my own: all the negotiations involved in doing something with another person. We had to decide what time to dine, what sort of food to eat, where to eat, and how much we wanted to spend. After all those things were figured out we wound up at a “Moroccan” restaurant at the edge of the Albaicín where we had a fairly expensive meal. Well, at least I had some leftovers.

By the time dinner was over it was drizzling pretty steadily and the walk back to the guesthouse across slippery cobblestones was treacherous enough that I was glad to have drunk nothing stronger than lemonade with dinner. We parted ways at our respective rooms and I settled in for another quiet, restful night in my snug room.

Spending summary
Food: 34,20€ (vending machine lunch, groceries, and expensive dinner)
Transit: 2,40€ (local bus)
Entertainment: 18€ (Alhambra admission plus audioguide)
Souvenirs: 17€ (tea and a small item at Alhambra)

Travel log Spain: day four, Madrid to Granada

I was up very early (5:00 am! on a vacation!) to begin my journey to Granada from Madrid. I needed to walk from the hostal to the subway and transfer subway lines once to get to the Estacion Sur bus terminal. From there I would board a bus for the 4.5 hour trip to Granada.

Granada is just not an easy place to get to. In preparing for my vacation in Spain, I had researched the places I was interested in visiting and Granada was a city that I wanted to be in very badly. This small but historically important city is connected to the other major cities in Spain by train, but the high-speed line doesn’t extend there so getting to Granada from Madrid was going to take four to five hours no matter what form of transportation I used. I had actually extended what was originally going to be a 10 day vacation to 12 days just so I could fit in a couple days in Granada, plus the travel time to get to and from there.

In determining my best transportation option, I decided to take the bus instead of the train because there were more buses a day to chose from and the price was several euros less. The major bus line serving that region, Alsa, had also recently introduced a service on this route called Supra which was supposed to offer a restroom, wider seats, power ports, and WiFi on the bus. For much less than the train, it sounded like I would have better amenities, so I booked a seat on the Alsa Supra route before I left Chicago.

When I left the hostal at 6:30 am it was still dark. I used the 10-ride Madrid Metro ticket to enter the subway and had a short, uneventful ride and transfer. Estacion Sur was “just above” the subway station, according to my guide book. As I left the station, I followed the signs pointing towards the exit for Estacion Sur and walked up the stairs to…a boulevard. There was a map just outside the exit showing some landmarks and the location of the station, but I was just not having any luck figuring out where the landmarks were in the pre-dawn dark. I dithered around the street a bit, then walked up the block to ask the only other person I could see out on the street, a sanitation worker, “¿Donde esta estacion sur?” After listening carefully to his long answer and observing his gestures, I proceeded in the direction he had indicated and was happy to see a well-lit station on the other side of the autopista ramp that had been blocking my view in the darkness.

My early day of confusion wasn’t over yet, though. While the station was an oasis of light and bustling with activity on this Monday morning, I was also having trouble figuring out where to board the bus. The terminals displaying destinations and departure times didn’t have anything resembling my Alsa Supra route on them. I didn’t want to wait in the long Alsa line just to inquire, and I had about 40 minutes before my departure so I decided to explore on my own. I took an escalator down to the bus boarding area and starting walking along, looking at the buses and the destinations listed on them. After a few minutes of searching I found a bus with Alsa on the side and a destination board marked Granada. A driver sat inside at the wheel, looking rather tired himself. I showed him the ticket I had purchased online in Chicago and printed at home. “¿Autobus à Granada?,” I inquired. He looked over the paper I handed him. “Sí.” Success!

The bus wouldn’t be boarding for a while, though, so I headed back up to the main terminal area for a few final preparations. While I had eaten my yogurt that morning and was carrying a few KIND and Larabars from home, I had passed a small sandwich shop and decided to get one for the road. A fairly large bocadillo made with a fresh loaf and cheese was only 3,80€ and great “insurance” against me getting hungry and cranky on the long ride. I also stopped at a restroom in the station; even though my bus was supposed to have a restroom on it, I didn’t want to take any chances. (That bus station restroom was the filthiest one I encountered while in Spain, and I was very glad to be carrying my own tissues, too.)

We boarded the bus about 15 minutes before departure, and then we were on our way. The Supra route didn’t hold up to all it promised: there were no power ports and the WiFi was present but I couldn’t get my devices to connect to it. I haltingly asked another passenger seated near me with a laptop for the password (clavé — meaning key — was the best translation I could come up with for password, and that seemed to work well enough), but from his expression and actions I could tell he was also having trouble connecting, and he wasn’t happy that there was no power available, either. We did have an attendant, though. She came around at regular intervals to offer us complimentary snacks and drinks, and to apologize sweetly for the lack of power ports. There was on-board entertainment, as well: a movie, several short features on music and sports, and a few different music channels.

An hour south of Madrid we were finally moving quickly along the autopista and the landscape was completely rural. I saw enormous wind and solar farms, as well as seemingly endless orchards of olives, and a few smaller orchards of grapes. About 2.5 hours out of Madrid we got into some mountains. For the next 30 minutes the views outside my window were astounding. I hadn’t seen anything like them since a drive through Colorado several years ago. The autopista was a narrow two-lanes hugging the side of the mountains, and I was very glad that I was not driving.

On the road to Granada

On the road to Granada

We arrived at the Granada bus station, and I phoned the guesthouse to alert them I was on the way. My accommodation in Granada, el Numero 8, was nestled in the pedestrian only zone of the Albaicín (the old Moorish part of town), so there were very specific instructions on where to meet a person who would escort you to the house. For convenience sake I took a taxi up into the Albaicín and waited for my host, Rafa, to meet me.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and fairly warm, and I was happy to be in the city I had wanted so much to visit. Rafa (an expat from Chicago!) pointed out landmarks to me as we walked to the guesthouse; although there were occasionally names for the short, winding “streets” posted on walls, navigating by landmarks was the only reliable way to find a particular location in the Albaicín. Like Toledo, this area of Granada was built on the hillsides, and getting in and out of the Albaicín involved climbing up or walking down very sloped, cobbled streets, with a few actual stairs thrown in every once in a while. (In my notes I had jotted down, “would hate to walk these drunk!”)

It didn’t take long for me to finish the tour of the guesthouse and drop my bag before I headed back out. I had nibbled on that cheese sandwich bought many hours ago in Madrid, but I longed for a nice, big Spanish lunch in the worst way. I headed down through the Albaicín towards the “European” area of town, stopping along the way at a conveniently located restaurant. It was past 2 pm and I was hungry, so even though I had no idea what the food was like, I stepped in and asked for a table. My selections from the menu del día were a little quirky, but they hit the spot: a spaghetti bolognese starter, merluza plancha main course (grilled fish with vegetables!! there were actual mixed vegetables served alongside!!), and flan for dessert, all washed down with cerveza and agua.

After my satisfying meal, I continued down to the main street, Gran Vía de Colon, to orient myself and do a bit more preparation for my three night stay in Granada. I visited a ServiCaixa machine and retrieved the ticket I had purchased for Alhambra the next day; I went to another ATM to get more cash (because the Caixa machine, of course, wanted to charge me a fee to withdraw money!); I found the tourist office and picked up a map for Granada and one for Sevilla (the tourism office was run by the state of Andalucía, so they had information for many Andalucian destinations); and I took a ride on the little buses that go up to the Alhambra and into the narrow streets of the Albaicín so I could get a better understanding of the layout of the town and logistics for my visit to Alhambra. Before boarding the bus, though, I spent a few minutes sitting on Plaza Nueva enjoying the sunshine and watching dogs play.

Taking a break

Play makes me thirsty! I need a drink!

Before returning to my guesthouse for the night, I picked up some groceries for the next few days. Each room in the guesthouse had it’s own little kitchen facilities and cooking gear, and I planned to make good use of these during my stay. The “supermarket” marked on the small map given to me by my host Rafa was hardly up to American supermarket size standards, but it had everything I would need: yogurt, cheese, eggs, bread, jam, fruit, beer and Nescafé. (I should have skipped the coffee as I found on my return to the room; there was already a jar left behind by another traveler, as well as cooking oil, rice, and pasta.)

I hauled my groceries back up into the Albaicín, put them away, and then headed back out for a sunset view from the San Nicolás viewpoint. This viewpoint or mirador is a popular place to view the Alhambra any time of day, but as the sun sets the view is enhanced by the dramatic lighting playing across the Alhambra walls — both natural and artificial. Getting up to Mirador San Nicolás was a bit tricky, though. I knew the general direction, but the streets twist and turn so there was no direct way to get there from my guesthouse. As I stopped in a wide (by Albaicín standards) lane I saw the backs of two other women as they were pausing to consult their map, too. We turned towards each other, and there was the woman I had first met at O’Hare, and again at the Vodaphone store in Madrid! She was with her sister and they were also heading up to Mirador San Nicolás.

Together we found our way, and jostled for a place to take photos before the light faded.

Me at Mirador San Nicolas

Me at Mirador San Nicolas, with Alhambra and the mountains.

As the sun sank further down the sky, we could hear the unamplified voice of the muezzin from the nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer. And it felt like I was outside of time in lovely, lively Granada.

Spending summary
Food: 33€ (including groceries)
Transit: 46,07€ (Alsa bus ticket with fees; taxi; local bus)
Hotel: 120€ (paid in advance for three nights, at 40€ each night)

Travel log Spain: Day three, Toledo

I slept poorly, most likely due to jet lag. Even though I went to sleep at midnight, I woke up just over two hours later and couldn’t get back to sleep until 5:30. But I wanted to go to Toledo on this day, so I was out of bed at 7:30 AM.

I walked the several blocks to Atocha station and despite desperately wanting coffee, I made it my first order of business to buy my train ticket. High speed trains run between several key cities in Spain, and I would be taking my very first high speed trip this day. For the longer high speed train journeys the best prices are secured when buying tickets in advance online, but for the shorter trips such as the one between Madrid and Toledo the cost is the same online as it is in person.

Atocha station was confusing to me. It’s a big station that not only serves as a terminal for cross country train travel, it also serves as a local commuter rail (Cercanías) station. I didn’t find the signage very helpful and had to ask where to buy my ticket. Once I secured my one-way ticket, I scoped out where to board the train. This also took me quite a while to figure out, and I was desperately wanting coffee and breakfast the whole time. Finally, I felt that I had the layout down and was able to get a café cortado and a croissant. I had 15 minutes to enjoy my breakfast, then boarded the train.

In 2004 there were terrorist bombings of several Cercanías trains at Atocha station. I’m not sure if security has been beefed up since then or if there was security screening in place before the bombings, but before boarding the train we were required to put our bags through the same sort of screening machines used at the airports. This wasn’t just a Madrid station requirement, though. I took two more train trips while in Spain and for each one passenger baggage was screened.

The train left at 9:20 AM and a short time later we were arriving in Toledo, approximately 72 km (45 miles) away.

Arrival in Toledo

Arrival in Toledo. Literally a mile a minute on the high speed train!

The train station was beautiful, but I didn’t have time to linger. I went all touristy when I arrived and headed for a bus that promised to drive us to the scenic overlook of the city made famous by El Greco, and then drop us in town. As I headed to the bus stand, I bought a map for 2€. I barely used this map so it was a complete waste, unfortunately. The tour bus company gave us all maps that proved to be pretty decent, so I used that one instead.

The topography of Toledo and its surrounds is very hilly and I was also glad to not have to walk uphill into town; this alone made the 6€ bus trip worthwhile since a cab would have been similar in price. The overlook was beautiful and while it was a clear day it was also a cold one. I’m sure the open upper deck of the bus must have had the best view, but I decided to ride inside and stay a bit warmer.

Overlooking Toledo

Overlooking Toledo

After we arrived at Plaza Zocodover, the main square in town, we were given some suggestions on what landmarks to visit and suggestions on how to return to the train station. And then I was off!

Toledo is a charming city that retains it’s medieval character. It’s well known as being the home of the painter El Greco and for its grand cathedral (visible in the photo just left of center). I visited houses of worship for all three big “religions of the book” in this small town where Christians, Jews and Muslims once lived peacefully together. It was also the first UNESCO World Heritage site I visited on this trip, but certainly not the last.

I loved Toledo. Walking the hills wasn’t so bad when one can do so at a leisurely pace, and the narrow streets were very different than the wide boulevards of Madrid or Chicago.

A Toledo street

A Toledo street. I also saw many For Sale signs here. (The costumed characters aren't real, by the way!)

Despite snacking on a granola bar brought from Chicago and a piece of fruit purchased the day before, I was famished by 13:00 and had to eat lunch. This was early by Spanish standards, but I just couldn’t hold out any longer. I stopped at a small cafetería that looked well-populated by locals having a snack (croquettas with wine or beer seemed to be the preferred thing to nosh), took a seat at the counter, and ordered the menu del dia. This time I had a bowl of sopa del dia (a chicken broth with fine egg noodles), lomo with patatas fritas (grilled pork tenderloin with fries) and a cerveza for 10€.

I wandered around Toledo a bit more after lunch. I had made it to the Sephardic Museum (housed in an old synagogue), the grand cathedral, the Santo Tomé church (where I ogled El Greco’s famous painting The Burial of the Count of Orgaz after paying 2,30€ and caught the end of a mass in the main chapel for free), and the old mezquita or mosque (I didn’t pay to go inside the mezquita here). By now it was late afternoon and I had returned to the Plaza Zocodover to decide what to do next. At 10:30 in the morning this plaza was pretty dead, but by mid-afternoon it was full of people strolling, talking, eating, and just socializing in general.

I bought a few dulces (sweets) at the Mazapán San Tomé shop on Plaza Zocodover. Marzapan (as we call it in English) is a sweet paste made of almonds. Toledo is apparently well-known for mazapán and I have to say these sweets were the best marzapan confections I’ve ever had. The marzapan I’ve had in the past came from Germany and I thought it much too sweet. The Toledo mazapán was just sweet enough and had a nice fruity flavor to it. I bought about four pieces and made myself save two for later.

To accompany my sweets I wanted coffee, but I also wanted to sit out on the square in the sun and not at a café table. How to get a coffee to go? I didn’t know how to ask for something “to go” and my phrasebooks (a print on and two different electronic ones on my iPhone) just weren’t agreeing on how to say this. So I went into McDonalds to get a coffee, since everything at McDonalds is packaged to go.

Apparently the opening of a McDonalds fronting the historic Plaza Zocodover was rather controversial, although it was allowed. I saw lots of people in the McDonalds, and it was not American tourists filling the place up. McDonalds in Toledo did not have American style drip coffee; it had the typical Spanish coffee selections of café con leche or café cortado. I ordered a café cortado and took it out to the plaza. I felt compelled to take a photo of it, which I’ll share here. This is a typical McDonalds coffee in Spain.

Cafe cortado from McDonalds in Toledo

Cafe cortado from McDonalds in Toledo

I placed the guidebook I was using next to it for size comparison. A café con leche would have been a bit larger, due to the extra milk. It still would be much tinier than the coffee servings we’re used in the U.S.

After my snack, I was ready to go. I decided to walk back to the train station since it would be all downhill and pretty easy. As I left the plaza and started walking the direction indicated by the guide in the morning I got a bit worried that I couldn’t find the map he had given me. I must have dropped it somewhere, but I really wanted to verify my route before going far downhill. I stopped to check the other map I had purchased that morning, but I couldn’t orient myself with it after spending all day using the other style map.

I stopped a young couple who were walking around with the same style map from the tour bus company and asked them in Spanish “Donde esta estacion del tren?” They didn’t seem to know, but responded to me with some English. I explained that I had lost my map and was turned around, but we were still not able to establish the correct route.

They continued on their way as I stood there struggling with the strange map for another minute or two. Then they turned back to me and offered me their map and some new observations of how to follow it to the train station. That was so kind of them and typical of the people I encountered in Spain. I’m sure they just needed a few minutes to process through my question and comments, and once they had figured it out they offered as much help as they could give.

Until I had the train station in sight, I was still a bit anxious during my walk through the walls of the old city and across the river on a scenic bridge. The topography of Toledo is so much a part of it’s charm. Because it is situated high on a bluff and surrounded on three sides by the river it’s easy to see why it was a desirable place to build a town back when land wars were common.

At the train station I went to the window to buy a one-way ticket to Madrid. After I got my ticket I noticed the board announcing the departure schedule and saw how lucky I had been: with the exception of the train for which I was now ticketed, every remaining train was sold out that day! I don’t know what I would have done if I had decided to linger in the square even 20 minutes later; I may have been stuck in Toledo for the night!

During the ride back to Madrid I fell asleep which made the already quick journey go by even faster. Although it was still pretty early by Spanish standards, I didn’t have much energy left after running all day on such a little amount of sleep so I decided it would be an early night. Besides, I had to pack and settle my bill that night since I needed to leave the hotel very early to catch my bus to Granada the next morning.

While settling my bill at the hostal, I ran into a small snag. The hotelier had taken my reservation with a credit card, but I was now being asked to pay for the room in cash. Luckily due to my big withdrawal I had the 150€ on hand, but it necessitated another trip to the ATM since I definitely needed 120€ cash for my hostal in Granada the very next day. Throughout Spain I found that credit and debit cards weren’t used very much by locals. I had to pick up the habit since I usually pay for everything with one of my rewards credit card at home (I do pay the bills off every month).

I was concerned about how I would get coffee and breakfast the next morning with such an early departure and I was feeling lazy so I stopped at the Starbucks near my hotel that evening. I bought a sandwich for dinner and a breakfast for the next day: a venti americano coffee (yes, Starbucks had venti size in Spain!) and a yogurt parfait. (I had figured out a clever way to keep my yogurt parfait cold overnight, too. I hung it out the window in it’s little Starbucks bag, and secured it with an extra carabiner clip, just in case. The americano coffee had no milk in it, so it could sit on the desk all night; I just had to drink room temperature coffee the next morning.)

Next to the Starbucks was a little convenience store where I also bought a can of beer to enjoy with my sandwich that night. Beer helps me sleep well, and I was concerned that jet lag would mess me up again; the next day was going to start very early, so I needed to be well-rested!

Spending summary
Food: 30,25€ (included next day’s breakfast)
Entertainment: 17,30€ (tours, entrance fees, map)
Transit: 21,20€ (AVANT high speed train tickets)
Hotel: 150€

Travel log Spain: Day two, Madrid

Before I had left on this trip, I considered taking a day trip to Segovia on this particular day. But I decided to skip the day trip and just stay in Madrid to explore. So, after getting ready (which included taking down the laundry I had washed the night before and hung to dry in the shower) I went out in search of some breakfast.

This was the day I truly began to eat my way through Spain. I started out at a cafetería on Paseo del Prado where I ate a hardy breakfast: a small omeletta boccadillo (an omelet of eggs and potatoes on a roll) and a cup of café con leche. Actually, since I really needed the energy to get going, I had two cups of café con leche! I ate this sitting at the counter and avidly watching and listening to the action going on around me.

I saw one man order a beer with this breakfast. It was watered down with something else (I couldn’t see what), but I clearly saw the beer being added to the glass from the tap. This was also the first time I saw someone eat the “olive oil and tomato on toast” that I had read about in the guidebook. It wasn’t what I expected. I had thought there would be toast, certainly, brushed with olive oil and then topped with sliced tomatoes. Instead what I saw consistently whenever anyone ordered this was a topping made of pureed tomato spread on the toast. It wasn’t tomato sauce exactly, but it was something similar. Tomato jam, perhaps? My breakfast came to 6€, so I paid the bill and left to wander the city streets.

I scoped out the entrance to Museo del Prado. I wanted to figure out how and where to enter because I planned to return that evening during the free hours. Most of the museums in Madrid are free for the last two hours at least one day a week; visiting museums this way would save me money since I rarely have the mental energy to spend more than two hours at a time in a museum anyway.

After my Prado planning was done, I headed to Plaza Mayor. The day was partly cloudy, but it was a Saturday and the city center was bustling with people.

Busy Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Busy Plaza Mayor, Madrid. All sorts of action to be seen!

For sale signs over Plaza Mayor, and a potential neighbor

For sale signs over Plaza Mayor, and a potential neighbor

During the walk through the city I saw plenty of Se Vende (For Sale) signs hanging on the balconies of apartments. The housing crisis hit Spain hard, too, and I’ve heard several stories about Spain’s mortgage and banking issues on NPR and Planet Money podcasts. I was reminded of them as I walked along and viewed the real estate (and potential neighbors enjoying the morning air).

I wandered further along Calle Mayor and ran across what became my favorite place in Madrid: Mercado San Miguel.

Mercado San Miguel, Madrid

Mercado San Miguel. The best eating (and drinking) in Madrid!

This market had only a cursory write up in my guidebook where it was described as a place to purchase gourmet picnic supplies. One could certainly stuff a picnic basket with the offerings, but the market also had tables where the food and beverages could be consumed on site. In addition to raw ingredients, there were many items ready for take away: canapes made with fresh fish or caviar; oysters; jamon; cheese plates; empanadas; olives; sherry; wine; beer; coffee; gelato; pastries and confections. I could go on and on about the bounty of the San Miguel Market!

Since this was a Saturday the market was packed. As I drooled my way through the busy aisles I managed to find a small space at a bar where I purchased a noon-time snack.

Noon snack at San Miguel Market, Madrid

Noon snack at San Miguel Market, Madrid

That’s a small beer (una caña) and a canape (open-faced sandwich) made with fresh bread and a few slices of the famous jamon, or Iberian ham. I didn’t want to spoil my appetite for lunch, though, so I left the market after my snack was finished and continued walking towards the Palacio Real.

It was a beautiful day for walking and I savored my stroll, stopping to gawk at weddings and fountains and the beautiful facades of the buildings. I made it to the Palace and then…I decided I didn’t want to go in. It was 14:00 — the lunch hour in Spain — so I stopped at random restaurant for the menu del dia. Fixed price, three-course lunches that include a beverage (wine, beer, or coffee) are common in Spain and I enjoyed them whenever my schedule allowed. On this day I had ensalada mixta (mixed green salad), hake con arroz negra (grilled hake fish over rice cooked with squid ink), a vino tinto (red wine), and torta chocolate to finish. I splurged for a cup of cafe solo (plain espresso, no milk) to accompany my cake. My total lunch bill came to 11,90€.

By now it was nearly 16:00 and I needed a rest, so I started the long walk back to my hostal. Along the way I stopped at an ATM to get more cash. The ATM I visited this time (a Deutschebank one) did not flash a fee screen at me, and since at this time I wasn’t sure how often I’d encounter fee-free ATMs, I tried to withdraw a fairly large sum: 400€. After a bit of churning, I got a message that my transaction was rejected by my bank, so I walked across the street to a Barclay’s ATM and gave that a try. I got the same message.

I started to get worried that I’d have to go to the expensive ATM, and then my tired brain finalized reasoned it out: at home I have a $300 withdrawal limit and 400€ is much higher than that, so I should try again for a smaller amount. A withdrawal of 200€ worked with no fee message and I was relieved. While I had been able to use my credit card to pay for lunch, I knew I was going to need 120€ in cash to pay for my hotel room in Granada in a few days, and I wanted to get the money in hand. If I was going to have cashflow problems, I wanted to know as soon as possible.

As I walked back to my hostal feeling much relieved, I stumbled upon one of those small neighborhood stores the locals called chinos and decided to look for a power strip. This store had a little bit of everything and I walked out with some fresh fruit and my power strip in hand. I took a short rest at my hostal before walking the two blocks to the Prado and strolling freely inside for the next two hours. With the exception of a few Goyas from his “black period” it seemed that the entire Prado collection was religious art. I’m glad I went, but I didn’t feel the need to schedule any more visits to Prado since I just don’t like that type of art very much.

It was now about 22:00 on a Saturday night: prime dinner hour for Spain. I stopped at a place near my hostal that was bustling with people. There was no room at the bar (my first choice to dine since one can easily point to the sandwiches and canapes on display without having to figure out what to call them), but I was seated at a small table by myself. As I sipped my vino tinto and nibbled on the olives and canapes I had ordered (jamon de pato or “duck ham” and sardine with roquefort) I felt very lonely.

I looked at the tables full of families and couples and felt conspicuous in my corner my myself. But I still savored the experience. I jotted in my notebook about my day and wrote about how fabulous the food was and how much I was enjoying it. I couldn’t finish the olives, but rather than let them go to waste, I offered them to a table full of fun looking people near me. They gladly took them with thanks (gracias!) and a smile. Then I paid my tab and went back to my room to call B and sleep.

Spending summary
Food: 34,20€
Incidentals: 7,70€ (power strip and fruit)