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Christmastime in London

England during the holiday season is a delight.

A retired call box in Chichester

A retired call box in Chichester

I don't know the reason or the history, but I don't think I've been to a more festive place during the holiday season (I'm sure the Christmas markets in Germany give it a run for its money, but I've yet to have the opportunity to visit there). Everywhere you turn, there are light displays, trees, ornaments, and holiday cheer.

I returned late last week from a week-long trip there with Lauren and her family, where we had a wonderful time.

We spent a fair bit of the trip in Southern part of the country visiting family, and even got to attend our first Premier League football (soccer) match (in Southampton).

The second half of our trip was spent an hour and a half train ride away in London, which, turned out to be the photographic highlight of the trip.

London

Waterloo Bridge & Trafalgar Square

We braved the chilly evening air to make our way from Waterloo Bridge, and it's dusk views of the city, to Trafalgar Square. From there we enjoyed the Christmas lights that adorned the streets and retail shops along Regent, Brook, and Bond Streets before finishing our evening with dinner at gastropub near where we were staying. It was all quite festive and fun.

London, full of holiday spirit

London, full of holiday spirit

Sky Garden & Covent Garden

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Our second and final morning in London, we awoke to forecast of rain, but made the most of our day, with a visit to the Sky Garden, which despite the weather and low visibility, gave us some fun views of the city.

Rainy London

Rainy London

A late morning breakfast and wander through Borough Market (I never knew that 'Shake Shack' sauce was something that I needed on a bacon sandwich) was a highlight of the day. We also managed to sneak in a visit to Covent Garden before the rain sent us packing.

Our brief London stay ended that evening with a festive bang at the Royal Albert Hall for a performance of Christmas Classics by the London Concert Orchestra, Royal Choral Society, and Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Logistics Corps. A late evening pint at the pub near our hotel was the evening's finale, and we went to sleep quite content with the week that was.

See these all these images (and a few more) on my Flickr: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmaUZmiG

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall

Barcelona

The fourth most densely populated city in the European Union; Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia, and is one of Europe's leading tourist, economic, and cultural centers. It is a city known for the art of Picasso and the architecture of Gaudí, and is home to the Blaugrana and their Nou Camp. It sits on the Mediterranean sea between Llobregat and Besós rivers, and is protected by the Serra de Collserola mountains. It was also, the destination we chose for the second-leg of our trip to Spain.

Barcelona from Sagrada Família's Nativity Tower.

Pamplona & Montserrat

With our time San Sebastián coming to an end on Wednesday, October 11, we checked out of our hotel, got in our rental car, and began the journey to Barcelona.

Pamplona

First stop of the morning led us through Pamplona's ancient city walls, and into its medieval city center. After just missing the opening of the market on Plaza del Castillo, we checked out the exterior of city's famous bull ring, Plaza de Toros de Pamplona, and then made our way back towards our parking garage, and before long were on the road to Montserrat.

The next few hours were spent driving through more mountainous Spanish countryside of Aragon and Huesca, passing though Parque Natural de la Sierra y Cañones de Guara, and ultimately arriving in the early evening at Montserrat.

Yesa Reservoir in Aragon.

Montserrat

Since we arrived late in the day, Montserrat's activity for the day was already beginning to slow. We explore the monastery grounds, and made sure to take the funicular up to the top of Saint Joan, where we looked out over Catalonia in the day's fading light, but after a full day of driving, we were beat, so off to the airport we headed to drop off our rental car. Once there, we hopped in a cab, and headed to our hotel in Barcelona's El Born neighborhood. We checked in, cleaned ourselves up a bit, found ourselves some tapas, and called it a night.

Barceloneta Beach, Parc de la Ciutadella & Catalunya Square

The next morning, we got an early start, and after coffee at a neighborhood cafe, we spent the morning learning about the life of Pablo Picasso, at his museum. While many of his most famous works reside in galleries throughout the world, the museum's curators have done an admirable job of telling a story about the career and life journey of one of the 20th century's most famous artists.

Barceloneta Beach

Morning in Barcelona, near the beach.

Our next stop was a walk to and along the beach in Barceloneta. We dodged the many street vendors, did our fair share of people-watching, grabbed a vacation cocktail at a beachside bar, and ultimately had a delicious lunch of tuna tartare and grilled octopus at Agua on the beach.

Parc de la Ciutadella & Catalunya Square

With bellies full of delicious seafood, we made our way inland to check out Barcelona's downtown area. Our route took us around and through Parc de la Ciutadella, under Barcelona's Arc de Triomf (European's love their arches), eventually leading us to Catalunya Square, and the top of the famed Las Ramblas. Here we encountered the only real bit of political demonstration (outside of the ever-present Catalonia flags hanging from balconies) during out time in Spain: the remnants of a morning pro-Spain unity demonstration, which mostly consisted of a few groups carrying flags and chanting, "Barcelona is Spain; Spain is Barcelona".

The leftover stage from a morning political demonstration on Catalunya Square.

By this point, our feet were starting to tire, so we found a tapas bar recommended to us by two different friends, [Tapas 24], where we shared a pitcher of sangria, patatas bravas, croquetas, and more. Our evening ended with a walk back through El Born to our hotel, and an obligatory dinner of Paella at a local restaurant.

Park Güell, La Boqueria & Sagrad Família

Park Güell

Our final full day in Spain started with a metro journey through town to visit Gaudí's Park Güell. The park certainly has its merits, but to me, the story of Gaudí's vision was more fascinating than the park itself. While I appreciated the intricacies of the mosaic work throughout the park, the crowds of people have turned what should be a peaceful escape in the city into something a bit more hectic.

Part of the ceiling mosaic in Park Güell's market area.

Part of the ceiling mosaic in Park Güell's market area.

La Boqueria

After doing our best to relax in the park for a few, we journeyed back towards our hotel, and walked through the Gothic Quarter to La Boqueria. We'd heard that Bar Pinotxo was not to be missed, and we made sure not to miss it. A bar that has been open for nearly 100 years, and continues to be family-owned and operated to this day; it was not to be missed.

'Pinotxo' (Juanito), himself!

On the day we visited, we counted three generations preparing the food, including the patriarch of the family, Juanito (Pinotxo, himself). After a brief wait, we were able to secure two of the fourteen bar stools, and sat down to wonderful lunch of freshly prepared specialties. The white beans with baby squid, prawns, and chickpeas were all delicious. We washed lunch down with a couple of beers, vacated our stools, and started to make our way back across town to see the final attraction of our trip: Sagrada Família.

Sagrada Família

Despite the fact that we were, at this point, beginning to run our steam from constantly being on the move. We decided to head to the famous, in-progress basilica on foot, stopping on the way to see a few of Gaudí's famous apartment buildings, Casa Batlló and La Pedrera.

After admiring these two sculpture-like dwellings, we made a pit stop for some local souvenirs, and made it to the basilica just-in-time for our 5:15 entrance time.

Sagrada Família

A truly grand structure, Sagrada Família's construction commenced in 1882, and is still in-progess to this day. Estimates suggest that the structure might finally be finished in 2026 (the centenary of Gaudí's passing), but despite being unfinished, the basilica truly is an impressive piece of architecture.

Our tickets gave us entry to the basilica, as well as access to the Nativity Tower. After a bit of a wait, it was our turn, and up we went. The details of the cathedral from above, as well as views out over the city were truly stunning. We began our descent, making sure to take in the views that the tower had to offer. Once more on the ground, we came away from our visit feeling like we had found an appropriate finale to our trip. Sagrada Família is a beautiful structure, and deserving of its must-see status.

A tip for future travelers: Make sure to try to book your tower visit for later in the day, as the late afternoon sun makes the city and towers glow.

We ended our trip with a dinner and drinks a few blocks from our hotel, and went to the sleep feeling like we got the most out of our week in Spain.

For more photos from the Barcelona leg of our trip, take a peak at the full album on Flickr: https://flic.kr/s/aHsm7r4L7r.

San Sebastián

Situated in the northern coast of Spain, San Sebastián (or Donostia, if you’re Basque) sits just 20 km from the French border. It is the capital city of Spanish province of Gipuzkoa in the Basque region, has a wonderful blend of food, culture, and people, and sits on a gorgeous beach on the Bay of Biscay.

The view of San Sebastián from Monte Urgull.

The view of San Sebastián from Monte Urgull.

Tarragona & Zaragoza

Our visit to this beautiful city commenced on Sunday, October 8 following an overnight flight into Barcelona and journey via car across Spain (with pit stops in Tarragona for breakfast and Zaragoza for lunch) that took most of the morning & afternoon to complete.

Tarragona

Zaragoza

Once we arrived, checked into our hotel (Astoria7, which I highly recommend), and shook off our travel weariness, we set out upon the town and enjoyed our first pintxo bar experiences, but not without first making our way to beach.

After a later than expected evening (a glass of wine or two might have been consumed along with all of the delicious food), we called it a night, returned to the hotel, and rested up for a couple of very busy days.

Zurriola Beach, Old Town, Bodegón Alejandro, Monte Urgull & La Concha Beach

Zurriola Beach

Monday morning began with a needed coffee and delicious poached egg over avocado toast at Sakona Coffee Roasters. From there, we headed down to the beach, on what was a gorgeous morning, and took in the sights at the surfing beach, Zurriola.

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Old Town & Bodegon Alejandro

San Sebastián is a city known for its wonderful culinary tradition. It boasts, per capita, the 2nd most Michelin Stars of any city in the world (trailing only Kyoto, Japan), so we felt like we needed to experience at least one of these recognized eateries. So, after a stroll back through town, we decided on one of San Sebastián’s many Michelin recognized restaurants, Bodegón Alejandro, where we stuffed ourselves silly with a six-course tasting menu. I won’t soon forget the Anchovy Lasagna, the standout dish in a meal full of excellent flavors.

Anchovy Lasagna

Anchovy Lasagna

Monte Urgull

With bellies full, Lauren and I crossed town once again, and began our ascent up Monte Urgull, where we stopped often to both catch our breath and to take in the magnificent views.

After sitting for a beverage at the bar near Monte Urgull’s summit, we descended the mountain, and ambitiously set out for the funicular at Monte Igueldo on the other side of the bay. Rather than take a taxi or bus, we decided to hoof it along San Sebastián’s picturesque La Concha beach.

La Concha Beach

As the sun began to set, we had high hopes for the views atop Monte Igueldo, but alas, it was not meant to be, as we arrived at the funicular entrance only a few minutes before its scheduled 19:00 closing time to find the ticket counter closed up, and the day’s funicular rides all completed. While we were disappointed, we were also exhausted from the ~10 miles we covered on foot, and decided, after a stop at a local bar for some pintxos, to call it an evening.

Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz & Amelia

Our third day in San Sebastián began with an audible. We knew we were very close to the France-Spain border, had access to our rental car, and were interested in exploring what the French side of Basque Country had to offer. With that in mind, we grabbed our morning coffee and hopped in the car.

Biarritz

The 'surfing' beach in Biarritz.

The 'surfing' beach in Biarritz.

First stop on our French day trip was the city of Biarritz. After a wrong turn or two, we found ourselves a parking spot by its famed surfing beach, and began exploring.

Mussels & Frites at Le Tandem

Mussels & Frites at Le Tandem

While in town, we found a bistro to our liking, Le Tandem, where we had shared some mussels & frites for lunch. Following lunch, we explored the city's beach areas a bit more, noting the interesting juxtaposition between surfing culture on Plage de la Côte des Basques, and the luxury feel found along Grande Plage.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz

The second stop on our brief tour of France's Basque coast, led us to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. A much needed afternoon soda helped us recharge our batteries, and we wandered off of the boardwalk into town's shops.

After an enjoyable hour and a half of exploring we returned to the car, thinking we'd hop in and make our way back to Spain without incident. All was going according to plan until I realized that I had lost our garage ticket. In a panic, I searched, re-search, and triple-searched the car, my pockets, and the floor of the garage. Lauren then waited behind with the car while I headed off to attempt to procure a new ticket somehow. When that failed, I meekly pressed the 'Help' button on the garage's payment kiosk. A broken conversation between myself and the non-English speaking attendant, eventually ended in me mustering enough Spanish words (I say words, because they were in no way grammatically or structurally correct) to coax the gentleman to come to the garage to help. Thankfully, he arrived promptly, and was able to help us escape the parking garage. 45 minutes later, we were safely back in San Sebastián, kicking our feet back for a few, and resting up before our final in meal in town at Amelia.

Amelia

Our menu at Amelia.

Our menu at Amelia.

We decided for our final meal in San Sebastián, we wanted one more great culinary experience. Unfortunately, we had not been able to secure a table at Arzak, or one of other famous restaurants of its ilk. However, after a bit of research, we realized that Amelia, was new on the scene and its chef, Paulo Airaudo, had in fact, spent time in the kitchens of restaurants like Arzak and The Fat Duck, and already had Michelin star under his belt at La Bottega. We opted for the six course tasting menu with the sommelier's wine pairings. The meal was a great experience, culminating with a chance to visit the kitchen and say 'hi' to Chef Airaudo.

We thoroughly enjoyed each course, but the star of the show for me, was our dessert course: a frozen lemon custard paired with a dill-infused oil.

Yum.

Yum.

With our grand finale of the part one of our Spanish trip in the books, we retreated to the our hotel to get some rest in preparation for our journey back to Barcelona.

For more photos from the San Sebastián leg of our trip, take a peak at the full album on Flickr: https://flic.kr/s/aHsm4z91hh

Night over the bay in San Sebastián.

Night over the bay in San Sebastián.

Blue Hour from the Netherlands Carillon

Last night was one of this year's opportunities to shoot the Harvest Moon in DC. Unfortunately, our view of moonrise was obscured by clouds. Despite missing out the intended shot, I was instead able to take advantage of some really nice light post-sunset.

A long-ish exposure of the Lincoln Memorial, base of the Washington Monument, and U.S. Capitol Building.

Lunchtime in the Windy City

Punch the clock. Open the door. Take advantage of your time. See the sights. Lose yourself for a moment. Doze off. Breathe.

When I'm in a new city (whether on vacation or otherwise), I do my best to walk everwhere I go. Even just a brief escape during lunch hour can reveal the unique personality and rhythm of that place.