Atlanta: Chapter 8

Our last morning in Barcelona comes early. We are up by 5 and on the bus by 6:30. Our flight is to leave at 10:30.

Bad traffic all the way, but we make it to the airport. After checking every one in, we wait in line at the security checkpoint. As my bag rolls through the scanner, the security “expert” at the Barcelona airport keeps repeating “battery” to me and makes me unpack my suitcase to show him my first aid kit and books he somehow suspects are batteries.

Then there is the customs checkpoint, which mercifully does not take long. We finally make it to our gate with a few minutes to spare. I am then informed that the US TSA has randomly selected me to be further searched. So again, I unpack everything and am found to not be a terrorist.

Our flight leaves on schedule, and about 90 minutes into the flight, an ominous message comes from the captain–he asks if there are any doctors on board and if they’d kindly head to the rear of the aircraft. About a dozen men and women head to the back. A few minutes later the captain announces we’d be making an emergency landing in Madrid. Our plane quickly descends and lands. We are on the tarmac for nearly two hours. I don’t know what happened to the passenger who had to be taken from the plane, but I hope he is okay. It is an unsettling situation.

Once airborne, it dawns on us that we will most definitely miss our connecting flight home from Atlanta. Alex works with a flight attendant who is most helpful in dealing with Delta, and when we land in Atlanta we are told we’d all be on a flight home tonight.

This isn’t exactly the case.

The priority has to be to get the kids home, and the ticketing agent at the gate is able to get them all a seat and one kid on standby. And fortunately, he gets a seat on the flight. That leaves three of us in Atlanta for the night. It is after 11 pm. More than 24 hours after we’d woken up in Barcelona.

Luckily, Alex has a brother who lives near downtown Atlanta, and he graciously welcomes us.

Alex, Brian, and I are on a 3:15 flight the next day, so in the morning we tour the amazing Georgia Aquarium, one of the most remarkable aquariums I’ve seen–Whale sharks! A manta ray! A sea turtle! Dolphins! Beluga whales! Free Swedish Fish!

We arrive at the Atlanta airport over two hours before our departure time, and quickly realize we’d be in a rush. Our boarding passes can not be confirmed and we cannot check-in. Alex spends a lot of time on the phone, and we spend a lot of time standing in a line. Finally we have boarding passes in hand. We arrive at the gate about 10 minutes before boarding.

In some ways, this overnight layover was the perfect ending to a trip that went otherwise flawlessly. Nothing truly bad or unexpected happened in the 10 days touring Europe. Our kids were awesome–well-behaved, punctual, respectful, energetic, and kind. We could not have asked for a better group for young people. And the time spent in Atlanta with two great people and friends, while not what we had preferred, was time well-spent.

I came home to my animals, a crazy and excited dog, an indifferent cat, flowers and a card from my very thoughtful Sarah, who also bought me beer and wine and made a welcome home banner in French and everything. She will be back Sunday, and I get to bore her with days and days of stories and hours and hours of pictures.

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Barcelona: Capítol Set / Capítulo Siete

The last morning in Europe. At least for now. I cannot imagine not coming back to all of these places to explore further. I think one of the greatest benefits of a travel tour is that it can only inspire more travel, can only make one want to seek out more new experiences.

I woke up once again to the serenade of the garbage truck here at Hotel Mercury. Then lots of shouting teenagers (not from our group), so I wasn’t in the best of spirits to start the day. Breakfast has been disappointing at the hotel and the bad coffee is a chief reason for this!

We drove into Barcelona’s city center and began walking down La Rambla, a busy and fun stretch of pedestrian avenue filled with restaurants, cafes, shops, flower stands, bars. We stopped at La Boqueria Market to find something to lift our spirits.

La Boqueria is a photogenic, colorful place filled with delicious sights and smells. It’s the kind of place where you want to consume everything you see and smell. Alex, Brian, Emilie, and I started with some jamón ibérico. We added on a delicious shot of espresso, and Brian and I each ate a massive, delicious, cold, salty, and fresh oyster. All for under 6€. Needless to say our spirits were lifted and we were ready for the day.

We continued walking down La Rambla to the El Gòtic district. And eventually we ended up at the Cathedral of Barcelona. We quietly walked through the church, admiring its impressive design and beautiful gothic features. Once our tour ended, it was time for lunch.

Half of our group elected to head down to La Vila Olímpica del Poblenou for a paella feast. I’m not sure what everyone else’s expectations were, but mine were completely blown out of the water. The waitstaff provided the students with the soft drink of their choice and us adults received generous glasses of Spanish wine. Then the food started coming out.

The feast began with pan con tomate, a traditional Catalan snack, much like Italian bruschetta. Next came whole fried anchovies (head to tail) served with lemon. Then huge portions of fresh mussels, and finally out came the paella. It was filled with whole shrimp, mussels, and scallops. It was fun sharing this big feast with our students—a big community-style meal and a true taste of Barcelona and the bounty of the Mediterranean.

Next we rode the metro back to meet with the rest of the group and walked to the Museu Picasso. The museum focuses mostly on Picasso’s early works, but showcases over 50 of Picasso’s interpretations of Diego Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas.” Picasso was a true visionary, and it was thrilling to see his work up close.

After touring the museum, we ventured back toward the sea for yet another meal. Our last meal in Europe was fitting—tapas. If our tour itself was a sampling of lots of experiences, our last meal would follow suit. We ate until we were satisfied and took the bus back to Santa Susanna.

We headed down to the beach for a reflection and some fun before packing up and preparing for the early morning.

I will never forget this trip. It was a real thrill for me to spend time with so many students I had taught and to meet others for the first time. I am proud of the way they treated each other and the way they handled themselves in this tour. I made some new friends as well.

While it’s a tad bittersweet to leave, I am excited to get back home to my family and friends. I hope to come back to Europe as soon as I can.

Au revoir!

¡Adiós!

Adéu!

Barcelona: Capítol Sis / Capitulo Seis

The change from Provençe to Santa Susanna, Spain could not have been more stark. But the vibe here is fun—it’s a noisy and busy place. Walking to the beach near the hotel one hears at least six different languages—German, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, English, Russian. People are drawn to the sea and to this region of Spain. It is beautiful here, and the weather is perfect.

We enjoyed a short bus tour of Barcelona, seeing the Olympic stadium and aquatic center, the exterior of the Basilica of Sagrada Família, designed by Antoni Gaudí, and other beautiful sights in the beautiful and vibrant city of Barcelona.

We visited Park Güell, like Sagrada Família, it was also designed by Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí’s design principle fuses the organic and natural world with his own artistic vision. The result is a unique and stunning sense of the world.

I helped take a small group of students on a bicycle tour of the city. It was a fantastic and fun way to enjoy the sights and sounds of the old part of Barcelona and the beaches, which were built just prior to the 1992 Olympiad.

After the bike tour, we walked a bit on La Rambla (not pictured) and enjoyed a nice meal.

Tomorrow we will return to La Rambla, visit the Picasso Museum and the Barcelona Cathedral, and eat some seafood paella. It will be our last day in Europe before we fly home the next morning.

This trip has been wonderful in so many ways, and I think we are all a bit sad to see it end. The kids made memories to last a lifetime, and it was a real pleasure to be a part of it. I will never forget this tour, and I cannot wait to get back and explore again!

¡Hasta mañana!

Fins demà!

France to Spain: Chapitre Cinq / Capítol Cinc / Capitulo Cinco

I’m not sure anyone would ever be too excited about leaving Provençe, but the tour goes on…

We embarked for Spain in the morning after another delicious French breakfast. I will miss breakfast in France so much. Croissants, pain au chocolate, pâté, espresso, cheese, crepes…I already miss it.

The first stop on the way to the Barcelona vicinity was Carcassonne, France. This is an old fortified city near the Pyrenees Mountains that separate France and Spain. Inside the city’s walls is a small village filled with shops and restaurants, but much of the architecture remains the same. Walking the streets is a bit like stepping back in time. We visited the cathedral and walked through the narrow cobblestone streets. Lunch was delicious: refreshing gazpacho, house-made duck and sausage cassoulet, and brie and honey for dessert. And because everyone needs a second dessert, I stopped for pistachio ice cream on the way back to the bus.

From Carcassonne, it was a short drive to our hotel in Santa Susanna, Spain, about 45 minutes from Barcelona. Our hotel has a nice pool and is a five-minute walk to the Mediterranean Sea.

Tomorrow we venture to Barcelona—a bus tour, free time to explore and eat, and a bicycle tour of the old part of the city and the beachfront.

¡Hasta mañana! Or in Catalan, fins demà!

Provençe: Chapitre Quatre

Morning in Provençe. The sunlight softly filtered through my window at Le Mas des ponts d’Arles. The previous evening had been a pleasure—wine and good conversation with the other chaperones. After breakfast, we boarded the bus for the city center of Arles.

We explored the ancient Roman sites in Arles: an impressive amphitheater and a colosseum. Both sites are still in use for various performances and exhibitions. The juxtaposition of the Roman influence and architecture with the more modern French styles is strange in some ways, but compelling. I’m drawn to the deep historical knowledge of these places, a knowledge that we don’t really see in the States. Our oldest buildings are practically new in comparison.

We also toured the crypt beneath the Arles city hall, which was originally part of the open-air Roman forum in its time, and later we toured a beautiful cloister, part of a different tapestry of history. These were both quiet places that allowed one the chance to ponder and wander.

Lunch in Arles was the best meal I’ve had in France. Alex, Brian, Emilie, Darren, and I sat outside in the square and enjoyed a bounty of fresh seafood from Du Bar à L’huitre. I enjoyed oysters from three distinct but nearby places. They paired nicely with a local white wine. Easily the best oysters I’ve eaten. I also tried sea snails, which were also delicious. Good food and great company.

Next we rode the bus to Pont du Gard, the tallest Roman aqueduct in the world. It cross the Gardon River and the site is a great spot for all manner of recreation—including eating and drinking. But we were there to swim in the cool waters of the Gardon. We spent about two hours swimming before boarding the bus for Nîmes. It was a great experience and one I will never forget. I’m so happy our kids are making these lifetime memories as well. They had so much fun.

We toured Nîmes on foot and enjoyed a nice meal at an Italian restaurant on the circle across from another Roman colosseum. I enjoyed a beautiful piece of salmon and some local vin rouge. Another meal with great company.

It was our last night in France, which made me a little sad. But I am excited to travel to Spain tomorrow.

À bientôt!

Provençe: Chapitre Trois

After our train arrived in Avignon and we’d left the station, it was easy to tell we were no longer in the big, busy city of Paris. The landscapes were quieter, the din of traffic was abated, and the soft scents of lavender hinted at the senses in the gentle breezes.

Our first stop was the old fortified city center of Avignon where we had a few minutes to ourselves. I quickly toured a museum of religious iconography before we visited the city’s famous Palais des Papes. This was a tour guided via a touchscreen tablet, which offered an augmented reality view of the site, giving visitors an idea of the majesty and beauty the building had in the 14th century.

We then headed to the small town of Arles. I know the name of this city because of its association with Van Gogh. We had a delicious meal of cordon bleu outside in the warm air in the center of a lively town square. After dinner a few of us visited an artisan glaciere for a cold treat. I ate a fig sorbet and another chaperone, Brian, and I enjoyed a pleasant stroll through the narrow streets of Arles enjoying conversation and the beautiful sights and sounds of the town.

We arrived at the hotel a few minutes later. It is quite the change of pace from the outskirts of Paris—here there is grass, open space, and room to roam. The kids played soccer, chased some chickens, and practiced gymnastics while the adults enjoyed local wines and each other’s company.

We have two nights here in Arles before heading to Barcelona. As our tour guide, Rafa, said, this is our “vacation within our vacation.”

Today will be a beautiful day in Provençe.

À bientôt!

Paris: Chapitre Deux

I’m writing this riding the TGV south to the town of Avignon.

The French countryside is streaming past the train windows. The land here is softly rolling farmland. Beautiful, pastoral, and peaceful.

Our last day in Paris was beautiful. We had a chance to sleep in a bit and prepare for a long morning at the Louvre Museum.

To say the Louvre is a big place is like saying the ocean contains a lot of water. It is difficult to describe the experience. Was it crowded? Mais, oui. But the museum is so immense, it never felt crowded or cramped. One can move through the exhibits slowly as there is no point in trying to see “everything.” That would require multiple trips to the Louvre.

The most iconic aspects of the building’s design to most visitors are the stunning glass pyramids and entrance built by I.M. Pei. I remember learning about the pyramids from my middle school French teacher, Mr. Walden. In fact everything I know about the French language and landmarks were learned from his class. I wish he knew how much I relied on that very basic (but useful) knowledge on this trip!

We moved slowly through the exhibits: the remnants of the fortress the Louvre once was, the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, the impressive gallery of massive Delacroix paintings, the furnished apartment of Napoleon III. I probably saw about 5% of the museum’s collection in the three hours we spent wandering the halls. 5% may be an overstatement. It was a bit overwhelming, and it is a place I would love to revisit.

After the Louvre and a quick lunch, ten students, myself, and our wonderful French teacher and group leader, Alex, took a group to see Saint-Chappelle, said to be the most beautiful cathedral in Paris. Well, we attempted to see it, but were rebuffed by a rude admissions agent. Even after a respectful and patient argument from Alex, we resorted to a plan B.

We wandered through a flower shop, took some time for coffee at a cafe near the fountain of St. Michel, visited a bookshop, and then boarded the Metro during rush hour. Our ten students were wonderful despite the crush of Parisians crowding the trains. We even made a transfer at a busy station and it went smoothly and successfully.

We met back with our group at the Opera, walked a short way to our dinner, which was at a “very French” restaurant. It was warm, cozy, and served a delicious duck confit.

After dinner we walked up, up, up to the neighborhood of Montmartre, a hip and artistic enclave, once home to Pablo Picasso. If I could live in Paris, I’d want to live in Montmartre. Sure there are tourists everywhere, but the streets are narrow, the pace is slower, and everywhere you look there are boulangeries, patisseries, fish shops, cafes, restaurants, musicians, artists. The streets are cobblestone.

At the top of this neighborhood is the Basilica of Sacre Coeur, at the highest point in the city, and its commanding views of the city did not disappoint. Neither did the oysters from Normandy and the wine.

We made our way back down the hill, boarded the bus, and headed back to our hotel. We had to pack and be ready for the morning’s departure.

Paris, until next time!

A bientot!