Thanksgiving in Barcelona: Gaudi and Goodies

View from our Apartment – Casa Mila in the center

Since we couldn’t easily go home for Thanksgiving break, we decided to go to Barcelona instead.  We heard the food there was fabulous plus we would have a 4-day weekend to explore the city.  We left Wednesday night and instead of driving (which would have taken us 6-7 hours), we took the high speed train (at 180 mph) and we were there in 2.5 hours.  The train station is also conveniently located in the center of the city, so we were even checked into our apartment by 10pm.

We booked a place on the main shopping street in Barcelona….Passeig de Gracia.  The hotel surprised us with an upgrade to a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment (it was really nice but way more room than we needed).  They also gave us a box of chocolates and free internet service – all for the same price as a little hotel room. 🙂  The location was perfect, the view was great and the weather was perfect.  The second night we were there the city turned on the Christmas lights so the streets were all beautifully lit up.

Casa Botilo

Thanksgiving morning we out to have our coffee & pastry and decided to spend the day seeing Antoni Gaudi’s work.   Gaudi’s architectural work is so different and wild….seven of his properties are recognized by UNESCO as outstanding examples of early 20th century architecture.  Each of his works is more like a piece of art than it is a practical building.  He designed everything from lamposts, to buildings, to churches, to parks.  We actually spent all day looking at his creations.  It was like walking in fantasy land.  We first saw Casa Mila and Casa Botilo, then we went to see his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.  The church was amazing and we spent three hours there.  You can see and read all about it in our next post.

After our church visit, we headed to Park Guell….which is a park designed by Gaudi.  It’s not easy to get to, but it is on top of hill so it has a great view of the city.  It was an incredibly beautiful day and it was great to be spending it outside.  Visiting the park was so much fun and also very relaxing.  We sat on the park benches soaking up the sun, looking out to the sea and listened to several musicians and bands playing.

The design of the park is so whimsical and colorful!  I felt like I was in the Hansel & Gretel fairy tale.  The entrance even has what looks like two gingerbread houses.  The walls surrounding it undulate, the park benches are either circular or wrap around like serpents, there are cute little mosaic creatures and beautiful tiles throughout.  Curvy trails are all over the hill, going thru little tunnels and leading to all sorts of different places – including the house Gaudi lived in (which is now a museum).  I could have easily spent the rest of the day here but it was getting late and we still hadn’t had lunch.  We headed out and immediately found a great little cafe near the park and ended up having a majorly delicious little Mediterranean pizza and a mouth watering Iberian ham sandwich.

Park Guell in Barcelona

It was already early evening when we took the subway all the way down to the waterfront and walked up the infamous mile long street (La Rambla).  We stopped there to buy some evilly good chocolates at Le Boqueria (a huge farmer’s market) and then picked up some wine, cheese & bread to snack on before going to our Spanish dinner at 9:30pm.

Our restaurant was only a few blocks away from our apartment so we walked there.  It was a small restaurant with only 10 tables but it is very popular.  I had to make reservations several weeks in advance.  The dinner (which consisted of multiple courses) was fantastic.  Every dish they served was simply amazing and so different…so many colors and flavors.  Some of the things we had included bread, stuffed olives, spicy nuts, a tricolored caramel shot, foie gras on pastry crust with caramelized leeks, scallops, roasted suckling pig, a celery-lime sorbet, a cheese plate, banana mouse with ice cream and caramel sauce and finally several chocolate samples. Robert ordered the local wine pairings.  It was great to be able to taste so many different local Spanish wines with each dish.  This was by far the best place we ate in Barcelona and so far the best in Spain.  Just thinking about it makes me want to go back.  We sure hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving – there is so much to be thankful for!

Thanksgiving dinner

 

 

The Monastery in San Lorenzo de Escorial

Basilica Dome at El Escorial

We were looking to get away from the city again and see a little bit of fall color so we went to the town of San Lorenzo which is about 45 minutes away from Madrid.  We arrived around 10:00 am and made a quick stop for some delicious pastries and coffee before heading out to see the sights.  It was a beautiful cool Sunday morning as we walked through the very quiet streets of this picturesque town.  I use to think the Japanese were late risers, but the Spanish have them beat.  They don’t wake up until about noon!

The main attraction here is the Monastery, El Escorial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was built during the reign of King Philip II in the mid 1500’s.  When it was built, it was the largest building in the world for quite a long time.  The outside is very stark and boring looking – reminds me more of a prison.  It’s in an extremely pretty area though and it really stands out.  They don’t let you take pictures inside the complex, so in order to see what it looks like on the inside, you will have to click the link above or, better yet, go see it for yourself.

El Escorial Monastery

Overall, it’s really impressive.  To adequately see the whole place, it takes 3-4 hours and you have to follow the arrows or you will get lost.  It’s so large, it actually houses several museums, a palace, a mausoleum, a church, a library and a school all in one.  They should sell multi-day tickets.  You have to be FAR away if you want to get a picture of the whole place.

If you pay the fee to go inside you get to see a collection of tapestries and a huge painting by El Greco, followed by the Museum of Architecture which includes drawings that were used to design the building as well as the materials they used to build it…it’s pretty amazing.  Then there is the never-ending art gallery.  While Philip II was known to be a fairly modest and simple king, he loved art and collected over 1,500 paintings and commissioned some 500 frescos (the frescos are fantastic).  I’m not sure we saw that many but it sure felt like it.

View of Countryside & Gardens from Palace

Next we saw the palace and royal living quarters.  That wasn’t very exciting.  It was mostly just rooms with furniture and a few decorations.  There was one wooden door however that had exquisite detail all over it which looked like something probably done in Japan or China.  We also got to see King Phillip’s room – preserved exactly the way it was the day he died – kinda creepy.  The views out the palace windows of the gardens and surrounding countryside were beautiful though.  I did manage to sneak in a couple pictures of that!

The coolest thing in the whole place was by far the solid pink & black marble hallway and staircase which descended deep into the Pantheon.  This solid marble circular room contains nearly all the Spanish Kings from the last 400 years!  Standing in the center of all those black marble & gold caskets was a bit intimidating.  There are only two spots left – and they are for the current king’s parents.  The current and future kings of Spain will have to be buried somewhere else.

Mausoleum of Past Kings & Queens of Spain (from a postcard)

We passed thru at least a dozen other tomb “rooms”.  They housed all the other royal family members including princes, princesses, husbands, wives, infants and children.  It gets pretty depressing after a while.  The most bizarre tomb we saw was for the infants which is oddly shaped like a wedding cake.

We proceeded onward to the grand hallway and staircase,  the old chapel, the huge basilica (in which Mass was being held), and finally the library.  The library is considered to be one of the most important historic libraries in the world. It supposedly contains about 45,000 works from the 15th and 16th centuries, and thousands of manuscripts in Arabic, Latin, and Spanish.  It is a beautiful library, but it didn’t feel that big or that old.  It didn’t even smell old (like the Trinity Library in Dublin did).  It’s nearly in mint condition.  The bookcases are beautiful and the ceiling is strikingly bright and colorful – decorated with frescoes related to the the seven liberal arts.  It was fun to try and find them!

The town of San Lorenzo

We were finally finished and we were exhausted.  We had originally intended to take a hike next but we just didn’t have the energy.  There were other buildings included in the visit too (which are set in the gardens and countryside), but we didn’t have the energy for that either.  We also wanted to see The Valley of the Fallen which was close by.  There’s just so much to see around here!   I guess we will just have to come back. 😉

To see some more pictures click on the picture.

Monastery Tower

The Chance to Live in Madrid

As noted in our previous post, there was a long pause in our blog due to a life changing event.   That life changing event was the the opportunity to live  in Spain. Robert received a job offer in January to work at a school in Madrid and we just couldn’t pass that up.  Had we known what that would entail, we might have stayed in Japan.  However, I can now happily say, it was all worth it.

City of Madrid

The whole process to obtain our Spain VISAs was incredibly stressful, slow, and inefficient.  It disrupted our lives like nothing else we have ever experienced.  We’ve lived in 4 other countries and none of them made it anywhere near this difficult to live there.   We started the VISA process on the 24th of January and we finally had both VISAs on September 25th.  It took 8 months for us just to get our VISAs.  By the time we both get our residence cards it will have been almost a year!  When we moved to Japan, the whole process took less than 2 months and required maybe an hour of our time.  Kudos to Japan!

In a nutshell, we were each given a list of 14-15 different things we had to do BEFORE submitting our application to Spain.  We had to get criminal background checks from both the USA and Japan, we had to get certificates of health, and we had to prove we had health insurance.  We also had to prove we were married, that Robert had a job in Spain, and that we had sufficient income for both of us to live there.   All these documents couldn’t be more than 3 months old when we submitted them with our application.  The school in Madrid had warned us that it would take 7-8 months.  If everything went perfectly, Robert would barely get his VISA before the next school year started.  If we made one mistake along the way, we’d have to start all over and Spain would not have happened.  On top of all that, what made this process even more difficult and stressful was that the governments we were dealing with primarily communicated in either Japanese or Spanish (of which we know neither ) and, in the case of the USA, it was a 17 hour flight away which made it impractical for us to deal with directly (so we had to ask family to help us).  Working with these three different governments was truly an eye-opener.  Japan is light years ahead of the USA and Spain when it comes to government processes.

Our VISA Application Instructions – one in Japanese the other in Spanish

The background check for Japan was easy.  It required us a visit to the police station, pay $5 dollars, and get a 20 second electronic finger print scan. They had the official report ready for us within 10 days.   The background check for the USA took 3 months and cost $50.  It required getting a set of fingerprints done the archaic way where you “roll each finger in ink and place on a card”.  Do you know how hard it is to find someone in Japan that still knows how to ‘roll fingerprints’?   Surprisingly, US Embassies don’t provide this service and the closest US military base to us was 2 hours away.  Fortunately, the office staff found someone in the Prefecture Police Department that still knew how to do it.  The finger prints had to be perfect, if they weren’t, we’d have to start the process all over….so we had 3 sets of fingerprints done – just to be safe.  We mailed them to the FBI in Washington DC on Feb 1st.  Ten weeks later, they sent the reports to Robert’s mom.  She then had to mail them back to Washington DC so the State Department could give it an Apostile (which is just another document saying the FBI report was real and authentic) which took two more weeks.  How inefficient and redundant does that sound?  I still can’t believe it took 3 months for the US government to issue non-criminal reports.  How sad and embarrassing for them. 🙁

The health check was easy.  It merely required a visit to our doctor in Japan who signed a form letter indicating we had good health.  The proof of insurance and the proof of work & income involved filling out more forms, making lots of phone calls, and collecting lots of additional paperwork from the new school.  It was time consuming and at times very confusing.  The proof of marriage required Robert’s mom to go to the court house in Red Lodge to get a recent certified copy of our marriage license which then had to be mailed to Helena to get an Apostile from the State Dept in Montana.  She then Fed-ex’d all the US documents we needed to Japan.

Some of the many Documents we sent to Spain

Once we had all the required documents together, we had to get them officially translated into Spanish (and then make 3 copies of everything).  It was already April and we were running out of time.  Fortunately, the translation agency in Tokyo would accept scanned versions of the documents, and they could do an express service for us.  Four days later, we flew to Tokyo (which was the closest Spanish Embassy to where we were living) and submitted all these papers and our VISA application.  We were told it would take 3-4 months to process the applications… as there is no express service.  The applications were sent to Spain for processing.  Once approved, we had to return to Tokyo to pick up our VISA.  We had no way of tracking our applications.  Hopefully everything was right.  We later learned that they don’t process family applications together.  They do the working applicant first and then they start on the dependents applications.

Sample Spain VISA – What we waited so long for

There was a small chance that Robert’s VISA could possibly be done before July, so we stayed in Japan an extra two weeks in hopes that his VISA would be ready.  He got it the day before we left Japan.  I was not so lucky, which meant I would have to return to Tokyo from either the US or Spain (depending on when they approved it).  Every few weeks we’d email the Embassy in Tokyo to see if they’d heard anything.  We were already living in Spain (which was a little risky and presumptuous actually) when I was finally informed my VISA was approved and I had 2 months to pick it up.

Now, this is what confuses me about Spain:  Here they are in a depression and instead of enabling people to just pick up their VISAs in Spain (or anywhere close to them) they make us fly all the way back to where we applied.  Most people would pay them a LOT of money to avoid that hassle.  They could make even more money if they’d just offer an expedited VISA service.  Neither of these options would be that hard to implement.

Now, when you get the VISA – it’s not over.  Once you arrive in Spain, you have one month to inform them of your permanent address, and then go to the police station to apply for your resident card.  Fortunately, the school made this very easy for us.  We just had to show up when and where we were told.  Their lawyer met us there and we were able to skip ahead of the people waiting in line.  The residency card is only valid for one year, so next year we have to apply for a new one.  When I went to apply for my card, Robert’s was ready.  By December, I should have my card and we both should be official residents of Spain. 🙂