European Vacation - 2008

3/20/2008 - 4/7/2008


Once Zachary had made arrangements to do his spring term of his Junior year at Syracuse University in Madrid, Spain, Deanie and I started making arrangements to go to Europe. The purpose would be to visit Zach, see Madrid, and to visit Deanie's relatives in Switzerland, many of whom she had not seen for 25 years.  I had never been to either country, so it would be something new for me, too.

Day 1 through 4 (3/20/2008 - 3/23/2008):

We decided to stop in New York / New Jersey on the way to Europe to visit our relatives there and to break up the long trip. We flew United Air Lines, using frequent flyer miles to get from LA to NY. Thursday evening we drove down to Van Nuys Airport, found a restaurant (Outback Steakhouse, if I remember correctly) and had some dinner. We then parked in the "Flyaway" bus lot, and took the bus to LAX. We took the redeye to Dulles and thence to JFK in Queens, NY. Deanie was picked up by her relatives, and I was picked up by my mother.

Deanie stayed on Long Island, visited her mother, sister, and nieces (and other relatives), and I stayed with my mother and visited with my sister, as well. I also visited my father's grave. On Sunday afternoon, we were both dropped off at JFK and we took another redeye on Swissair to Zurich. After a couple hour layover there, we got on another short Swissair flight to Madrid (Holy crap - Swissair puts the american air line companies to shame - it was a joy to sit on their planes for 8 hours, rather than the miserable excuse for service that you get on UAL, American, Southwest, etc., etc., etc.).

Day 5 (3/24/2008):

After getting in late Monday morning, picking up our luggage and going through customs, we took the subway into the center of Madrid. We were staying in the Hotel Euromadrid, so we got off at the nearest subway (Metro) stop and walked the two blocks to the hotel. Getting around in Madrid via subway is trivial - the subways are great - they go everywhere, and do so about every 3 minutes.

The Hotel Euromadrid is not a top-level hotel - it's on the order of Motel 6, but it was clean and the desk folks were very friendly and helpful. If not for the miserable Euro to Dollar exchange rate, it would have been almost reasonably priced, especially for a hotel in the downtown  of a large city. At any rate, we settled in, unpacked, and then called Zachary to have him swing by later for dinner.

Since we had a bit of time in the afternoon, we went to a phone store and bought a cheap pre-paid cellphone to use while in Europe - about $45 total. We then took a 2 hour bus tour of the city to get a bit oriented to where we were, how far stuff was, and what we might want to see. We rode on the top of the double decker bus and listened to the narration in English. I recommend it.

Once it was time to meet Zach, it took him a little while to find us, but we had a nice reunion. We then went to the restaurant "Puerto Rico" for dinner (right around the corner from the Euromadrid), and then hung out in the hotel with Zach until about 11 PM. He then took the subway back to his "home" on the other side of town - he was living with a family there, with his own bedroom in the basement. Paloma, the woman with whom he was staying would cook for him each night and do his laundry as well. Her daughter Columba and son Koldo lived with her as well, so he always had someone there to talk to (and on whom to practice his Spanish) if he wanted.

Day 6 (3/25/2008):

The next morning we woke and got some breakfast in a local restaurant - it took us a few days to figure out how this restaurant stuff worked there, and how you order breakfasts and what to expect. But there are about a zillion restaurants in Madrid - at least two for every inhabitant. I don't know how they all stay in business, but they seem to. We had decided to walk around a bit - get a feel for the city, and we went over to the Plaza Mayor, which is one of the main plaza's in town. There is a plaza about ever three blocks - it's absolutely wonderful - you can walk anywhere in the city, sit down and rest in a beautiful plaza, watch the people go by, and go to one or more of your own personal restaurants. While there, we saw a number of street performers - one thing that's big there is for folks to pretend that they're statues.

 Here are a number of pictures we took in Plaza Mayor during the week:

Deanie with "statue" in Plaza Mayor

Us in front of REAL Statue in center of Plaza Mayor

Deanie with gold plated "knight" in Plaza Mayor

"Statue" couple in Plaza Mayor - man adding mud to woman - yes, it's real mud

Deanie in front of main wall in Plaza Mayor - look closely - those are nude women painted on the wall. Like you'd ever see that in the USA.

So in the afternoon, we walked over to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which is one of the multitudinous art museums in Madrid. Deanie had a "10 best" book for the city, and this was listed as one of the top three or four museums to see. Deanie got it into her head that we had to see the top ten of as much as we could, so this was our first stop. We spent the afternoon there, and I began to get into a rhythm for going to art museums. While not my favorite pastime, I started to appreciate the tranquility (mostly) and talent displayed, and I knew that it was what Deanie really wanted to do. By the end of the week, after a few more, I was actually looking forward to each one, and was disappointed when Deanie wanted to leave before I did.

At any rate, after three or four hours, we walked back to the hotel and rested for a while before meeting Zach for dinner. Dinner is late in Spain - generally, people don't eat before 8 PM at the earliest, and it's not unusual to meet folks around 10 PM to start having dinner. It was interesting to have Zach interpret for us while ordering, and I started picking up a bit of Spanish over the course of the week just by listening. I didn't think that at 50 years old that would happen, but it seems that I had more of a knack for it than I thought I would. That night, we went to the Restaurant Botin, which is apparently the OLDEST continuously operating restaurant in the world. Kind of a tourist mecca, but interesting nonetheless. By the time we were finished, it was close to 11 PM, Zach went home, and we went to sleep.

Day 7 (3/26/2008):

We had decided to go to Toledo on Wednesday, so we woke up early and walked to the train station to catch a fast train from Madrid to Toledo. Although the train only takes 1/2 hour to get there, we had to wait almost an hour for the next train to leave. But the train station was beautiful, and we hung out near the interior gardens while we waited.

Once in Toledo, we walked from the train station up the hill to the town proper. We stopped for breakfast in a small shop (almost all restaurants in Spain allow smoking, and close to 1/2 of the people smoke, so it's VERY difficult to find a non-smoking place to eat and not get contaminated). This was no exception. We had a walking tour booklet, so we started walking around the town - first to a small museum that had a number of El Greco paintings, and then through the narrow streets, past the Alcazar and the Cathedral (for some reason that I don't remember, we either couldn't find the entrance or didn't look for it, so we didn't go in the main Cathedral and see the fresco on the ceiling, which Zach had told us was more impressive than the one on the Sistine Chapel in Rome). We walked for close to six hours, stopping in a few small art museums along the way, and also stopping in the two (defunct, due to the Spanish Inquisition [which, of course, no one expects]) Jewish Temples - the Sinagoga del Tránsito and the Sinagoga de Santa María La Blanca. It was especially moving to see these temples that were built 700-900 years ago, and had the Jews kicked out over 500 years ago, still intact and looking as they did when they were used for services. Very strange.

These pictures are from our day in Toledo:

Train Station in Madrid with Gardens

Train station in Toledo

Toledo as seen from below

Narrow alley in Toledo - almost all streets looked about like this

Church in Toledo

River as seen from Museum on hill

Deanie in front of Church in Toledo


After a great deal of walking and searching for places to eat that were acceptable, we eventually made our way back to the train station and to Madrid. We once again met Zach for dinner and got to bed late.

Day 8 (3/27/2008):

We had been told that to get into the Prado, we should arrive 1/2 hour to an hour prior to its opening, so we woke early on Thursday, got some breakfast, and walked down to the Prado Museum entrance. We were about the 4th people in line, so there was no threat of not getting in. The Prado is the premier art museum in Madrid - probably all of Spain, so we were especially looking forward to it. I had started having an affinity for the paintings (even the mostly religious ones) from the 15th to early 18th century, and the Prado is littered with these.

The paintings that struck me the most were Goya's "Black Paintings" - extremely difficult, extremely moving, and extremely depressing. The one that had the most impact of all on me was Goya's painting of "Saturn Devouring His Son" - an interpretation of an earlier Rubens painting by the same name, which was also housed in the Prado, and which we saw a bit later. I couldn't tear myself away from this one, and it was incredibly upsetting. The ability that Goya had to project the abject terror in the eyes of Saturn was frightening.

Once Deanie managed to tear me away from the "Black Paintings" room, we methodically wandered through almost every room of the Prado, except for the very few that held artwork that Deanie had no interest in. It's an amazing place, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as upsetting as the Goya paintings might have been.

After 4 or 5 hours in the Prado, we walked around town and eventually made our way back to the hotel to rest for a while. We then took the subway over to Zach's "home". Paloma had graciously invited us for dinner, and since Deanie doesn't eat meat (the national food of Spain is Ham - Ham, Ham, Jamon, and Ham is a common dish), she made fish and vegetables for us. Paloma and her daughter Columba speak English very well - more than well enough for us to communicate and understand each other. I had started picking up just enough Spanish to become dangerous, so Zach did some translation when there were minor difficulties. Paloma's son Koldo, on the other hand, spoke almost no English (seemed like a conscious rebellious act to me), so communicating with him was far more difficult. But Koldo is bright and VERY funny, even with the language barrier, and we all had a great time talking about our trip, politics, Franco, and their activities. We left late at night, walked over to the subway and took the Metro back to our hotel.  We never had to wait more than about 3 minutes for a train - it's wonderful.

These pictures show Deanie in front of the Prado, and us at Paloma's:

Deanie at Prado Entrance

Deanie at Prado entrance again

Zach with Paloma in Paloma's house

Zach, Paloma on right, Columba on left, Koldo next to Zach on left

Deanie, Zach, Paloma

Day 9 (3/28/2008):

Another museum day - we woke Friday morning, had breakfast, and wandered around a bit. Zach wanted to come with us to the Reina Sofia Museum, which is the National Museum of Art, apparently. He met up with us late in the morning, and we walked over to the museum. This museum held a lot of more modern art, including a lot of Picasso, not the least of which was the painting of Guernica. Much of the art was (as most modern art is to me) completely inaccessible - while somewhat interesting to look at, I haven't got the faintest clue what the artist was attempting to portray. This could easily be from my lack of knowledge of whatever subject matter it might have been associated with, or it might just be because much of modern art is a fantastic hoax. You choose. Zach was even more militant about the lack of accessibility of much of the art than I was. However, there was still a great deal of extremely interesting and wonderful stuff here - it's well worth the visit.

We relaxed at the hotel for a while after the museum and made arrangements to go out to dinner with Zach and four of his college buddies to a restaurant they had wanted to try. We walked all the way across town, past the Retiro Park to Lateral, the restaurant. The service was pretty miserable - apparently our waitress, when we could find her, was having a lousy day. But the food was very good, and we all had a good time talking about their experiences in Spain and Italy on their spring break.

Day 10 (3/29/2008):

Saturday was to be the National Palace day. Deanie and I wandered through numerous plazas and I read for a while as Deanie shopped a bit, and we then wandered over to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and met up with Zach. While I waited in line for tickets, Deanie and Zach went to a cafe across the street to get some lunch. After realizing that we'd get in without my waiting in line, I went over and ate with them - restaurants in Madrid are NOT fast. After lunch, we headed back across the street to the palace and wandered around the courtyard for a while. It overlooked a huge royal park. We then took a walking tour of the interior, seeing many of the ornate rooms.

Deanie and Zach in front of Palace

The three of us on balcony overlooking royal park

Zach and me in Palace Courtyard looking at Main Entrance

After the palace, we walked back to the hotel and relaxed for a while. We made arrangements to meet one of Zach's friends and his friend's family for dinner at a Thai restaurant, so we walked over there at around 7 PM. We had a great time with them, and then walked back to the hotel around 10 PM to relax and go to sleep.

Day 11 (3/30/2008):

Sunday the 30th was a bit cloudy and rainy. We had wanted to hang out in the Retiro Park - we had planned no museums - and see the musicians, performers, and just hang out in a green place. But the weather didn't cooperate, and Zach didn't wake up until about 3 PM, so Deanie and I wandered a bit in the park in the cold, went to a small art exhibition in a small pavilion (the Crystal Palace), and then on the way out hit the Cason del Buen Retiro - a Annex to the Prado right next to the park. It was free, and contained some interesting artwork. We did not see Zach that evening - he went to a soccer game with his friends.

Here are a couple of pictures of the park and surroundings:

Deanie and me near the main plaza near the park entrance

Near the main entrance to the park, with the Prado Annex in the background center


  We had a quiet, and somewhat earlier, dinner that evening, and then went to bed.

Day 12 (3/31/2008):

Monday morning we packed up our stuff and left our luggage in the lobby of the Euromadrid (as did a couple of other folks). Checkout time was 11 AM, and we weren't leaving town until early afternoon. We wandered around a bit, got some breakfast, and then went over to the Real Academia De Bellas Artes - a medium small museum near the Puerta del Sol - one of the million nice plazas scattered throughout Madrid. As with all of the other museums, this had a wide range of artwork, from the 1200's through the modern era. After the museum, we met Zach for lunch near Sol. We said goodbye to him, left him to go back to his schoolwork and headed back to the Euromadrid to pick up our luggage and take the train to the airport for the flight to Basel, Switzerland. Again, the Metro is a pleasure, and other than the standard bullshit you have to go through at any airport in this day and age (but we're safe, right?), we had no problem getting on the Easyjet flight.

We landed in Basel in the early evening, and after clearing customs we met Ariane and Simon (Deanie's distant cousins - we were later to figure out just HOW distant), who drove us to their apartment in Rheinfelden - a town partway between Basel and Zurich. We unpacked and relaxed at their home for the evening, and planned the next few days.

Day 13 (4/1/2008):

Simon took Tuesday off from work (a perk from working for himself at his company Andartis). The four of us drove from Rheinfelden south through Bern to the Alps near Interlaken - specifically to Lauterbrunnen. From there, we took the tramway up the mountain, and then caught a train to go about 2 miles towards Murren - a small ski town in the winter, and pretty empty the rest of the year. We got off the train about 1/2 way to Murren and walked a couple of miles on a snowy path the rest of the way. The views along the way were absolutely staggering - we could look across the valley at towering mountains on the other side, and see the trains traveling up the mountain. The Alps are incredibly steep in comparison to the mountains that I'm used to, either on the east coast or the west coast of the US.

We then walked around town and ate in a small restaurant - the Stagerstubli. A bit more walking, and then we took the train back to the tramway and headed back down the mountain. We left the Alps and took the back roads through green valleys with stereotypical swiss-roofed houses all along the road. We stopped along the way at a cheese making factory, which was fascinating. Lots of machinery, but also lots of folk-knowledge chemistry in order to get the appropriate flavor from the cheese. We bought some to use for dinner that evening. Here are some pictures from the day trip:

Deanie and Ariane on the tram

Town of Lauterbrunnen from 1/2 way up the tram

Deanie and Ariane walking on path to Murren

Ariane, me and Simon in Murren with mountain on other side of valley

Deanie and me in Murren

Simon, Ariane, Deanie, me in Murren

Mountains to the northeast from the train back to the tram

Town on other side of valley

Swiss farmhouses on drive back to Rheinfelden

We got home and relaxed for a bit, then had some dinner. We were pretty pooped from the day, so we all went to bed around 10 PM (especially since Simon was going to work the next day).

Day 14 (4/2/2008):

Ariane took another day off from her job on Wednesday and took us by train into Basel to look around. The day was a little grey and cold, but we had a good time taking the trams around town, wandering, and meeting up with another cousin, Boris. The four of us got some lunch, and then went to visit Deanie's cousin Hermina, who she had not seen in 25 years. Hermina's getting on in years and is living in an assisted living facility, but it's very nice - clean and well kept. Ariane and her mother Barbara go to visit Hermina just about every week.

After spending the afternoon with Hermina, we took the train to Ariane's mother and father's house (Barbara and Jean-Pierre) in Basel around 5 PM for a family get-together and dinner. Ariane's sister, Claudia and her husband, Reto arrived soon after, and Simon soon after that. Boris appeared as well, although he would need to leave early for a flight to Germany. Barbara's English was a bit rusty, and Jean-Pierre spoke very little English, but between what minuscule German I remembered from high school and the five others who spoke English well and could translate we had a great time talking about family, snakes in the desert where we live, family trees, and politics. My interest in the family tree led us to draw one, and we discovered that Deanie was much further away on the tree from everyone in Switzerland than we had previously suspected - she's 2nd cousins with Hermina, and 2nd cousins twice removed from Ariane. But no one gave a crap, because we had a great time.

Here are a few pictures from the day and evening:

Munster Cathedral in Basel

Deanie and me near the Cathedral on the banks of the Rhein in Basel

Me and Ariane near the cathedral on the banks of the Rhein river in Basel

Deanie and Hermina

Me, Deanie, Ariane, Basil, and Hermina

Basel City Hall - A beautiful building

The whole crew - Jean-Pierre, Basil, Deanie, Reto, Claudia, Barbara, Ariane, Simon


By 10 PM or so we were ready to get going, so we said our goodbye's and Simon drove us back to their place in Rheinfelden. We then hit the sack.

Day 15 (4/3/2008):

By Thursday, both Ariane and Simon had to return to work, so we were on our own. We took the train from  Rheinfelden to Basel and spent the day wandering around by ourselves. First, we went to the Kunstmuseum Basel, which is apparently the premier art museum in Switzerland. Lots of interesting stuff - for the first time, we decided to get the little audio guides, which in this case were just Apple Ipods loaded with 5 or 6 language versions of descriptions of a subset of the museum's collection. It was very clever and easy to use. There were many impressionist paintings in the museum, so Deanie was happy. Once again, I could live without the modern stuff, but the earlier art was very interesting, and I liked hearing the history and description of many of the pieces.

After that, we stopped to get some lunch and then walked across the Rhein river over to the Tinguely Museum, on the other side of town. Now, this place is just wierd. It's a museum (expensive as hell, for that matter - 15 Euro EACH to get in) dedicated to one guy - this "Tinguely" fellow, who makes mechanical artwork from scrap material he finds in junkyards. Some of it is fascinating to watch; seeing how the parts interact and move, but much of it is self-indulgent and silly. For 3 Euro, it would easily be worth it, but for 15 Euro - not so much.

After the two museums, we wandered around the part of town where Hermina used to live, and Deanie thought that she recognized the apartment building, but wasn't totally sure - it HAD been 25 years. We then walked and took the tram back to the train station, where we waited for Ariane to get out of work and then took the train back to Rheinfelden. Some pictures from our walk:

Deanie with the Kunstmuseum Basel in the background

Me on the banks of the Rhein

Deanie on the banks of the Rhein with some beautiful houses in the background

Not such a great picture, but the Munster Cathedral is visible on the other side of the Rhein


We went out to dinner and a nice restaurant right on the banks of the Rhein, a stone's throw from Germany on the other side of the river. Then back to the apartment for a discussion and demonstration with Simon of his company's (Andartis) manufacturing process analysis software, which I believe has a lot of promise. Then to bed.

Day 16 (4/4/2008):

Friday morning we woke and packed up. We said goodbye to Ariane when she left for work, and got ready to head into Zurich with Simon, who drives in most days rather than taking the train. The commute was uneventful, and we said hello to one of Simon's partners and dropped our luggage off at his office so that we could wander around Zurich for the day unencumbered. We took the train to the center of town, got a map out, and began wandering, not quite aimlessly. We stopped and got a very expensive breakfast (Switzerland is an unbelievably expensive place - get a coffee in Starbucks for 8 swiss francs, which are about equivalent to dollars. We went to the Grossmunster Cathedral and climbed the 180 stairs up one of the towers to an observation deck from which we could survey the whole town. It's amazing to be in a place that Charlemagne was in over 700 years ago.

It was a little chilly and grey, but we wandered through the streets of the old part of town, bought some pastry and bread at a bakery window right on the street, looked at the stores and shops, stopped on the shores of the lake, and headed back to the train station. We needed to be at the airport late in the afternoon for our flight to Boston, and still had to stop at Simon's office to get our luggage. We did all that, said goodbye to Simon, and made it to the airport no problem - the trains in Switzerland are as wonderful as those in Spain, if not more so.

Here are some pictures from the day:

The stairs in the Grossmunster Cathedral, looking down

Deanie on the observation platform looking across the city

The third spire of the Grossmunster on the right, with the city in the background

One of the narrow streets/alleys in the old part of Zurich

Deanie on the banks of the lake

The Grossmunster from across the river

A large, old square

Deanie in a small park we found and in which we ate some lunch

We caught our flight and made our way uneventfully to Boston, arriving in the evening. After getting our luggage and clearing customs, we got a rental car from Enterprise and drove out to Acton, our old home town. We were staying in the home of our friend Alane, who was actually away for the weekend in Las Vegas. By the time we got to her house, it was late at night and we were pooped, so we just went to bed.

Day 17 (4/5/2008):

On Saturday, Deanie took the car into Boston and Cambridge to meet a friend, Marie, and I walked over to my friend Joe's house to hang out with him for the day. It was nice just to hang out, not travel, not go to a museum, not have to go to a restaurant for food, and just to talk to someone I have known for over 32 years (and his kids and girlfriend). We had invited a bunch of friends over to Joe's house for dinner, so we spent the afternoon shopping and preparing dinner for everyone.

Deanie arrived late in the afternoon, and everyone else showed up somewhere around the arranged time. We had a good time catching up with folks that we hadn't seen in 6-8 months. After dinner, we hung out for a while and then went back to Alane's house to sleep.

Day 18 (4/6/2008):

Sunday was more of the same - Deanie's friend Marilyn came to visit from western MA and they took the car to hang out at Walden Pond. I went back to Joe's to hang out some more. That evening, Deanie and I went out to dinner at Paparazzi's Restaurant with a friend, Roger, who's wife had been a long-time friend of Deanie and who had recently passed away. We reminisced with Roger, and although I can't say that we had a good time talking about Dottie, it was certainly nice to see Roger.

We went back to Alane's house after dinner and packed up. We needed to get up very early to catch our flight, so we went to bed around 10 PM.

Day 19 (4/7/2008):

Monday morning we woke up around 4 AM and said hello/goodbye to Alane, who had gotten home from Las Vegas around 2 AM. We drove to the airport and caught our plane to Los Angeles. By the time we caught the bus to Van Nuys, got the car out of the lot, and drove back up to Tehachapi, it was about 4 PM, and it had been a long day. We stopped by the house and saw that while a lot had been accomplished while we were away, it was still not finished and we couldn't move in yet. The builder told us "another day or two", so we went to our friend Sam's house to stay for a night.


We had a great trip - better than I had anticipated. We saw relatives, friends, met new people, saw a lot of great artwork and architecture, learned a little Spanish, and got away from work for a while. After a three night stay at Sam's house, we were eventually able to move into OUR house for good. That's a different story.

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