Exploring France and Spain around the Pyrenees

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My recent trip to Europe was centered on exploring a bit of Spain and France around the Pyrenees which serve as a natural border between these two countries.  I wanted to write this introductory post to the trip’s writings as the trip combined a few different objectives that neatly came together into a one-week trip.

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There is only one way to travel, especially with loved ones!

My mother and sister are both named after the Virgin of Lourdes who appeared to a peasant girl named Bernadette in a grotto near the town of Lourdes in the 1850s.  It has always been a dream to go visit this place that was so prominent in their lives given the tie to their name.  But, we also wanted to go to Lourdes as a religious pilgrimage to such a special place for us Catholics.  We wanted to go in thanksgiving for good health after illnesses suffered, and as prayer for continued health.

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Two Lourdes!

Another personal goal for me and everyone in the larger family is to visit ancestral lands in the Basque country of Spain.  These are not terribly far from Lourdes (about 3 hrs drive) so I saw the opportunity to connect these two destinations in one trip.  The specific towns were our ancestors came from (they left Spain for Cuba at the turn of the century near the year 1800) lay along the coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao, and inland from there with some ancestors coming from just west of modern Bilbao.  Ii had also always wanted to visit San Sebastian as I heard it had some of the most phenomenal cuisine in Europe.  Bilbao is an hour from San Sebastian, give or take, so flying into the larger airport at Bilbao made the most sense.  There we would rent a car that would take us around the Basque country and later to Lourdes.

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At the Bilbao airport headed to get our car

While getting to Lourdes from San Sebastian would take so little time, we decided to be sure to stop along the way or drive through small French towns that are easily accessible on the route.  We drove through charming Saint-Jean-de-Luz, stopped for a walk and lunch at Biarritz, and drove through impressive Bayonne (wish we had had more time to stay there and explore!).  Biarritz was a place my mom and her best friend growing up had always dreamed of so that was a bonus!

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At the edge of the pedestrian streets of Bayonne’s city center

After Lourdes, the most logical end points if we were not going to backtrack, were Toulouse, France or Barcelona, Spain.  Well, that was an easy decision.  I had been to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics for three days but, really, was too focused on the Games to get to know the city (plus, I was sure it had changed!).  My mom has been to Barcelona decades ago but my sister had never been.  So Barcelona became the end point for the trip which, very conveniently, allowed me to drive through Andorra, the last of the tiny European countries for me to visit…  We split the drive from Lourdes to Barcelona by staying overnight in Andorra (which may have been a mistake, but who knew – stay tuned for that post!).  This allowed us, on the way to Barcelona, to stop at Montserrat to visit the monastery nested atop a mountain and accessible by cable car or train.

crossword puzzle

I always look forward to crossword puzzles on long flights

This plan sounded so good that my mom’s only brother opted to join us in this adventure.  Next came resolving the plane tickets to get there.  My uncle was headed there from Philly so he worked his itinerary separately.  My mom and sister, coming from Tampa, would naturally fly through Atlanta.  I had saved many miles with the local monster airline hoping to someday to do a fun trip with family and decided to go all in.  I lucked out in finding three seats in first class from Atlanta to Bilbao via Paris, and from Barcelona back to Atlanta on dates that would work for everyone.  My mom and sister got to do first class all the way from Tampa and back so no one was unhappy with the travel comforts!

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The four travelers awaiting the train in Montserrat

Once in Bilbao, we picked up a car.  I had under-estimated the trunk capacity and, though the four of us did very well in bringing a small roller bag each, I needed to upgrade the vehicle.  Unfortunately, the next level up was not available which meant I had to upgrade two levels with no goodwill from the rental company (I will name it for its lack of spirit:  Sixt).  This cost me dearly but, considering the plane tickets were free, and that this was a special trip, well, no regrets and all the way onward-and-forward!  The plan was to return the vehicle when we arrived in Barcelona as we figured we did not need there and I figured I would be tired of driving a large vehicle in Europe (it was a BMW X1).  I was glad to get rid of it, much as it was a great vehicle to drive!

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Our wheels in Europe

In terms of accommodations, we hoteled it everywhere except in Barcelona where we rented an apartment a block from Las Ramblas – prime location!  The owner, Carlos, was phenomenal and the apartment was spacious, comfortable and as-advertised (if anyone needs to find this apartment, just reach out and I can share).

So in the end this was the itinerary:

  • Day 1:  Arrival in Bilbao and head to San Sebastian
  • Day 2:  Drive the Basque countryside and visit ancestral lands anchored on the town of Andraka
  • Day 3:  Depart San Sebastian and head to Lourdes with a stop in Biarritz
  • Day 4:  Spend the day in Lourdes
  • Day 5:  Drive through the beautiful Pyrenees and explore Andorra la Vella in the afternoon/evening
  • Day 6:  Head to Barcelona with a stop in Montserrat, Spain
  • Day 7:  Explore Barcelona
  • Day 8:  Explore Barcelona some more
  • Day 9:  Head home!

I have to say that we packed a lot into 8 days but it was well worth it.  We had a mixture of lots of walking, lots of enjoying the food and resting, and just happy to be together going to all these special places.  Hope we get to do it again – salud!

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Salud!

Sports Travel: Not My Usual Pursuit but Fun

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I am not much a sports traveler.  I don’t chase “my” teams.  I don’t go checking off famous sports arenas.  I don’t chase big sports events.  Heck, what am I saying, I am not much a sports spectator.  I do it in big occasions (usually involving Georgia Tech, my alma mater) or when the opportunity comes up to do so and enjoy being with family or friends (which, I admit, is not often).  However, there are some things I have greatly enjoyed related to sports and travel.

All that said, I can get into sports easily when the right opportunity comes up.  Here are some examples of how travel and sports have offered some great experiences…

Traveling to the Olympics

First on that list is going to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics which I shared in another post.  Yes, a big enough event gets its own post :).

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I worked in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, lived in the Olympic Village, and got to see many events (for free and in the dignitaries’ seating area!) – but that was not travel for me (though it was to many who came to be part of this great event).

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With my awesome Mom at the Olympic Village cafeteria

Traveling for the Olympics may involve more expensive hotels than normal for the location, patience with crowds at events and in public transport, etc.  But it is a fun way to see a new place.  The older I get, the less likely I am going to want to deal with the crowds of these large events but I may have a Football (Soccer) World Cup in me…

Baseball’s World Series

Baseball may or may not be the world’s most boring sport (or is it cricket?) though it is a fun sport to be at to socialize.  But when the stakes are high, it can be as intense as any other sport.  I got to watch game 2 of the World Series in Toronto in 1993 where the Blue Jays played the Philadelphia Phillies.  I was working in Toronto at the time and our local office partner was able to produce tickets for us to attend (he wanted us happy about having to travel to Toronto weekly for months on end).  No complaints here.  And Toronto won that series on game 6.

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My ticket!

Rugby Down Under

The day I landed in Sydney, Australia from the U.S. there was a key rugby match (away) between New South Wales and Queensland.  My friend is a big fan of his home state’s team and he asked if I was too tired to go to the pub with him to watch.  I was jet lagged and had spent the day walking around the city but could not say no.  Well, I could have but part of me was intrigued about how Australians watch their sports in pubs so I tagged along  He did a great job explaining the sport and the differences between union and league as I had watched international rugby matches before and was getting a little confused by what I was seeing in this match.  In any case, though I slowed down during the middle of the game, I soon got my fourth wind of the day when the game approached its exciting end.  It was a great intro to Australia right after arriving to hang out with him and his friends watching a sports event that locals love.

I had coincided with the Rugby World Cup when I went to Paris in 2006 but was not clued in before I went and was not yet too into the sport to have bothered to try to watch a match.  I regret that as I now find rugby an exciting sport to watch.  By the time I went to New Zealand in 2009, I was more into it having watched on TV some of the international series.  So I enjoyed a couple of nights going to a local pub and watching with the locals.

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An English fan in Trocadero and a rugby ball in the Eiffel Tower during the 2007 World Cup

And Football (Soccer) Down Under

While visiting friends in Melbourne, the opportunity came up to watch a football (soccer) match where Australia played Japan.  One of my friends and I went with some co-workers.

The match was a friendly match and nothing to write home about but what is something to write about is how much drinking goes on in these matches and how not-well some of the locals handle their over-drinking.  Yes, sometimes as you walked around the stadium, you had to hold your nose as not everyone managed to reach a trash can or a toilet on time.  It was like a minefield!  No pictures needed for this…

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Phone photo does not expose the minefields!

Baseball around North American Cities

One cool thing about catching a sports event in another town is getting to see the arenas where these events are held (though some I could care less if I see).  Sadly, professional sports are way too commercialized and the owners hold cities and their taxpayers hostage (don’t get me going on this…) so I seek to not sponsor the businesses with any regularity.  But I don’t deny having enjoyed watching the Yankees play at the no-longer-around Yankee Stadium or the Mets at no-longer-around Shea Stadium.  Though I admitted not being much into sports travel, I have to confess I DO want to go to Fenway and Wrigley some day as well as watch the Green Bay Packers play at home in the middle of a snowstorm (for real!).

Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field

I may be biased but one of the most historic college football fields is Georgia Tech‘s Grant Field where Bobby Dodd Stadium sits which celebrates its 100th birthday this year (as a full stadium).  It IS the oldest stadium in Division 1.  And it is the site of the most home wins in Division 1 (I’d like to see more of these lately…).  The foundation of the stands was built by students back in 1913 – amazing, huh?   Of course, a lot of re-building has taken place on the facility, some good and some not visually impressive but it really is not THAT important as the facility is a great one to watch sports:  it is not an abomination in terms of size so you really feel close to the field and it has great views of the Atlanta downtown skyline (I love being in the west stands late in the afternoon – great colors!).   This stadium witnessed the most lop-sided win in history in 1916 (granted the rules of the game are not the same now) where Tech beat Cumberland 222-0.  Not even a basketball score gets that high!  All school loyalty aside, it is part of college football history and a great place to experience.  I enjoyed it as a college student and now as an alum!

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So all this said and done, the opportunity to visit a landmark in sports history has come my way and I will be going in January 2014.  Stay tuned to find out where this is!!!

What fun sports travel have you done?

What do you recommend I don’t miss out?

The Barcelona Olympics

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Along with 2 friends, I arrived in Barcelona during the Olympic Games in 1992, ready to experience the Olympics.  Being the pre-Internet age, planning for this wasn’t as “easy” as it would be today.  So we arrived with NOTHING.

A crowded hotel scene during the Olympics with the arrival of thousands of tourists could scare most people away.  Not us.  Foolishly and in the carefree way of young people , none of that made us think we shouldn’t do it.

We arrived at the train station from our overnight ride in from Madrid (my first real train ride and first overnight!) and figured out where we needed to go to be in the center of the action.  We found out there was a kiosk (or maybe a series of them) that helped visitors, among other things, find accommodations.  So we headed to the plaza at the foot of Montjuic and found the kiosk.

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Montjuic Castle at the foot of Montjuic where several events were held

It was awesome – they immediately started calling hotels to find one that had rooms.  And so it was.  It was a very small hotel, nothing grand but it would do for sure!  Don’t remember anything about it except that the toilet tank was up high and we had to pull a chain to flush.  It was the first one like that we had all seen so it clearly remained stamped in my memory whereas other details where flushed away from my memory.  (I had to…)

However, I jumped a step ahead.  We also took advantage of being in Montjuic to look into tickets.  We were able to get tickets to a diving final event right on Montjuic from some folks who were selling their tickets without trying to retire off the proceeds from the sale (clearly, not Americans).  We got lucky!  So before we went to the hotel to check in, we went to the event with our bags along for the ride!  Imagine that:  today, who would be allowed into a venue with any large shoulder bag??

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Ticket to the diving final

Final of the women's diving at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics

Presenting the medals, top center: Prince Albert of Monaco

The event was in a great setting as it overlooked the city – it was a phenomenal view.  Plus we got to see a medal award ceremony which was neat.

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Top left shows La Sagrada Familia (under some cloud of smog) from Montjuic

After the event, we then went to the hotel to get rid of those bags and keep on “doing” the Olympics and eating, of course.

Over the 3 days we were in Barcelona we also got to see athletics competition, a basketball game, and a baseball game.  Tickets for the latter we got at the U.S. Consulate.  A fellow American tipped us off that we could get tickets there.  One good thing about experiencing the Olympics was the camaraderie with fellow Americans.  It didn’t matter that perhaps in our country we would sit next to each other at a restaurant or bus stop and not talk to each other.  But abroad?  Instant conversation and friendship.  It was pretty cool.

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Public transportation pass with the Olympics’ mascot

Sadly, our stay in Barcelona was too short and too Olympics-focused.  We got to see some of the sites (e.g., La Sagrada Familia) and experience some of the city (e.g., Las Ramblas) but the Olympics is only once and that was the focus.  I shall return to Barcelona to see progress on La Sagrada Familia and explore more of this great world city.

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