Saturday, February 22, 2014

Southern Spain Part 1: Nerja and Granada

In Europe, there is no such thing as someplace sunny and warm during the winter, but we did the best we could by heading to the Andalusia region in southern Spain.  We flew into Málaga and picked up our rental car and headed out on the Costa del Sol, or Sunshine coast.  We actually did luck out our first couple of days with sunshine and mild temps.

Our first destination of our trip was Nerja.  It's a gorgeous white washed village on the Mediterranean coast.  It's quaint, quiet, relaxing, and was the perfect first stop.  We had sandwiches, or bocadillas, for lunch in an outdoor cafe in the sun right in front of the Balcón de Europa (Balcony of Europe). The Balcón is a beautiful viewpoint overlooking the sea.  Looking back from the viewpoint you could also see pretty views of the town on the cliffs as well as its small cove beaches.  We enjoyed walking through the narrow little streets, soaking in the sun.

Southern Spain is known for their beautiful ceramic tiles

Just outside of the town center are the caves of Nerja.  The caves are over 5 kilometers long, and weren't re-discovered until 1959.  It's thought that the caves were inhabited by humans from about 25,000 BC through the Bronze age.  Paleolithic cave paintings have even been found there!  Not only do the caves have incredible history, but they're gorgeous as well.  I think if Disney World created a cave, it would probably look like this one.  Concerts are held in the caves sometimes, which would be pretty incredible to attend.

Column of Hercules; the largest of its kind in the world.  

After spending the afternoon in Nerja, we drove along the coast for a bit and had wonderful views of the sunset.  We then headed north and drove inland to Granada where we spent our first two nights.  After checking into the hotel, we spent the first evening walking around and enjoying the nice weather.  Granada is known for serving free tapas, which is pretty sweet!  We had a wonderful dinner and some free tapas before heading in for the night.  While we were eating dinner, some rain rolled in and caught us without our umbrellas.  We were soaked when we got back, but at least it was sunny during the day!

Great way to enjoy the beautiful sunset on the coast!

Enjoying Granada before the rain!

Granada's most famous site is the Alhambra, which is a fortress/castle/Moorish palace complex.  It's earliest ruins date back to 889.  The palace walls were built in the 11th century, and was converted into a Moorish palace in the 14th century.  It was used by the Islamic courts of Spain, but after the Reconquista in 1492 it was used by Christian monarchs including the Holy Roman Emperor.  The palace and gardens are well known for Nasrid style Islamic architecture, which is so beautiful and intricate.  The architecture is much different than what we're used to seeing in other parts of Europe, so it was pretty impressive.  We spent a good 4 hours there, making sure we saw everything!

You can see the foundations of the soldiers quarters that make a little town in the courtyard.

We were ready for lunch after the the morning in the palace, so we took the bus back down the city. We found a great plaza area with plenty of outdoor cafes in the sun.  The temperature was perfect! The food and sangria were muy deliciosa and the atmosphere could not be beat!

After lunch we walked around the area surrounding Granada's main cathedral.  From there we headed along the river to the Albaicín neighborhood, which is the medieval Moorish area.  It's streets are narrow, hilly, and winding.  It was such a neat area to walk around!  It was hard to choose a direction to walk because they all looked amazing!  We walked up to the Church of San Nicolas, which has a great plaza with views overlooking the city and the Alhambra with the snow covered mountains behind it.  We sat there in the sun for a while enjoying everything about the moment.  There was a band playing music, people were dancing, playing with their dogs, checking out art at the art fair and just enjoying life!  Of course we also had to get some ice cream!

Enjoying the view of the Alhambra with the snow capped mountain behind it

We spent the rest of the evening walking around enjoying the city.  We absolutely loved Granada and had a great time there.  The next day we headed out in the morning and made the three hour drive to Seville, which will have to wait for another post, coming soon!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Snow Days in the Austrian Alps

Although Kyle and I got plenty of snow on our recent visit to Indianapolis, we still wanted more!  Kyle had a few days off, so we did a quick two night trip to the Austrian Alps.  We stayed in a town called Brand, which was a short 3 hour drive from our house.  The town is in a beautiful valley that's high in elevation, so even though this isn't a great snow winter for Europe, there was plenty in Brand!

Brand is a small town that's pretty much centered around skiing and winter sports.  There are a number of lifts and slopes for people of many skill levels.  Luckily, there are plenty of other winter activities for people that aren't skiers like me and Kyle!  (I value my life and my joints too much!)  Our first afternoon there, we went on a winter hike and checked out the nearby historic town of Bludenz.  We had dinner at a cozy restaurant that was just down the street from our apartment.  It was a nice, relaxing start to our trip!

We had another hike planned for the next day.  We knew it would be an uphill hike since you can toboggan back down, but we didn't expect to hike half the elevation of an alp!  The map was very misleading, but we're definitely glad we did it!  The hike started on a peaceful path at the edge of town.  We walked through pretty snow covered pine trees while gradually hiking up.  The further we hiked, the steeper the trail became, and the more majestic the scenery became.  We saw awesome cliffs with blue icicles clinging to them and we were completely surrounded by the alps. There were not many people hiking, so it was really neat to feel like it was just the two of us hiking the mountain.

After hiking uphill for about two hours, we reached the end of the trail, where conveniently there was a Hütte, which is a restaurant/small lodge in the wilderness for hikers.  We were so glad to see the Hütte!  We were definitely ready to eat after that long hike!  We each had a hot bowl of delicious goulash soup and we split a flammkuchen, which is like a really thin crust tarte with creme, bacon and onion.  We washed it all down with a nice hefeweizen and some espresso.  It really hit the spot!

What a welcome site!

We rented toboggans from the  Hütte to make our way back down the mountain.  It was a lot of fun!  There was hardly anybody else on the path, and it was so cool to sled down a mountain surrounded by peace and beauty!  It's amazing how long it took us to hike up, and how quickly we made it down!

After our hike, a trip to a thermal bath sounded perfect!  We weren't too far from a very nice looking thermal bath in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland.  It had a series of pools with different temperatures in a beautiful building with simple and elegant architecture.  There was also an outdoor pool.  It was pretty neat to be swimming outside surrounded by snow covered mountains!  It was a great way to relax our muscles, which we knew would be sore the next day!

We were heading home the following day, but we were in no hurry so we took the scenic route. We drove through amazing mountain valley passes that were absolutely stunning.  It was foggy when we first started out, and it looked just plain majestic once the sun started burning off the fog. It was quite possibly the prettiest drive of our life!  We stopped fairly often so that Kyle could take some pictures.  We never regret taking the scenic route!

We stopped for lunch in a town in the Bavarian Alps called Oberstdorf.  It's a gorgeous little town that definitely loves it's winter sports.  It reminded me a little bit of Garmisch on a smaller scale. We had a delicious lunch of cheese fondue and walked around town for a bit before heading home.

Mmmm, cheese!

There's never a bad time for ice cream!

Austria is such a beautiful place; we are so amazed every time we visit!  We had a wonderful time playing in the snow surrounded by incredible beauty.