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Left to their own devices…

(Editor’s note:  Dear readers – I’ve forsaken my responsibilities for a year and you for a month… forgive me.  We crossed the pond July 20 and I’ve taken time to dig into my deep inbox, which includes inevitable death and taxes.   Drudgery competes with fun for our attentions – the boys have enjoyed reconnecting with friends in a classic Tahoe summer; I’ve bought not one but two new mountain bikes to test my trails, and Sue is busy paddling and hiking most mornings.  

In the coming weeks I vow to catch up on our travels through the Alps, the Canton of Jura, Amsterdam and London, and to mix in some travel and parenting observations along the way.  I’ll start with the greatest parenting challenge of our generation… smartphones.)

It’s begun already… the Phone Wars.   Today’s youth need never be bored, there’s always a smartphone and net connectivity at hand, with massive media & consumer technology industries lurking behind the screen to consume malleable mindshare.  They mostly peddle mental candy – addictive dollops of irreverence, titillation and violence.  I recall a parent coach advising us “The media is not your friend” – but increasingly big consumer tech is complicit.  The $3 trillion dollar  “Frightful Five” enable this surreptitiously slow cultural ambush: Apple’s iPhone OS deliberately denudes parental controls – it would be so easy for them to provide robust usage and content filters.  Alphabet (Google) narrow-casts to our tastes, and thus narrows our perspective.  Facebook/Instagram facilitate inane photo/video sharing.  Microsoft force-feeds tabloid trash through Bing and its XBox glorifies violence thru Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Call of Duty.  And Amazon?  …Well I love Amazon.

IMG_6143So today with the new school year looming, we took a moment to update our Device Contracts to reflect the new realities of teendom.  We involved Max and Ben in the negotiation to ensure their buy-in, and try to strike a balance that facilitates responsible social connectivity and independence, and retards mindless content consumption.   Originally adapted (well, mostly plagiarized) from Janelle Burley Hoffman’s thoughtful and now famous IPhone contract, we’ve adapted it over the years, including a”heads-up” theme for our gap year travels:

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WONDER YEAR EXPECTATIONS

EDUCATION – Emphasis is now on education and experience, so adjust your mindset:

  • We want to be good ambassadors and to make local friends, so for each country we’ll learn a little language: please, thank you, you’re welcome, where is the toilet, count 1-10.
  • Every morning expect about 1 hour of educational activity (math, reading, trip planning).
  • Daytime: Heads Up! Enjoy the adventures. You’ll be out of your comfort zone most of the time – that’s the idea –
  • Every evening we review the day, write in our journals, and plan the next day’s theme and adventure.

STAY HEALTHY – It’s easy to get sick when traveling, so hygiene is key.  Wash, and Purell often.  Carry tissues & wipes.  Keep your hands off your face.  Avoid meat, cheese and uncooked food. 

STAY FOUND – Heads Up!  Buddy rule applies: don’t fly solo.  If you do get lost, stay close to where you are; use the walkie talkie or wifi calling every 15 minutes on the mark.  Ask an authority you trust for help. If they don’t seem trustworthy, avoid them.

CRIME – Heads Up!  Petty theft is common.  Carry important docs, big bills and emergency contact/ID in your money belt.  Carry the day’s cash in your wallet.  Keep your phone in your front pocket.  Don’t leave your backpack or valuables out of sight. Beware if someone bumps into you… pickpocket alert!

IN TRANSIT – Heads Up!  You are most likely to get lost or be robbed in transit: be mindful and alert.  No headphones, devices belong in your pocket.  If you need to check your phone for something, don’t do it in the middle of a hall or street – step to a safe spot and team up with the family so at least one person is always heads-up.

DEVICES – We want heads up… not heads down.  Adjust your expectations now for much less device time: Except for long trips and occasional downtime, devices are for pictures, communications, travel planning/study and reading, Period.

  • Mom/Dad will have the devices most of the time. They are our devices and we will always know the passwords.
  • If family calls or texts, answer or respond. Same team.
  • No devices at meals. No non-essential device use during or within 30 minutes of transition.
  • Standard rules still apply:
    • On planes or long drives the rule is ⅓ device time; ⅔ for reading / social time.
    • When you do have device downtime, never more than 60 screen minutes consecutively.
    • You own repairs/replacement.
    • Censor yourself. Don’t lie or deceive, do expect all device communications are public (just ask Hillary), no porn, no sexting. Put it away in public-restaurants, or while speaking with another human.

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Today we reviewed, renegotiated and revised the Device Contract with the upcoming school year in mind:

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OWNERSHIP AND ACCESS

  1. It is Mom / Dad’s device.
  2. We will always know the device passwords. We will occasionally go through messaging and content together.  Keep it clean.
  3. If it rings, answer it. Do not ever ignore a phone call or text if the screen reads “Mom” or “Dad.” Not ever.
  4. Homework, sports/exercise, sleep, meals and domestic duties trump device time. 60 minutes of non-educational device time per weekday, (90 on weekends/holidays) is plenty; to earn more read real books or write in equal proportion.
  5. We’re a family, so let’s be together.  Hand the device to one of your parents at meal time, and every time we get in the car.   
  6. Hand over devices school nights @ 10PM (Max) and 9:30PM (Ben). We’ll return devices in the AM If you have a pleasant attitude & after your bed’s made, room clean, teeth brushed, laundry away, breakfast eaten, dishes done, garbage out, and other Mom/Dad asks are met.
  7. School mornings you may use the device from 7-7:15AM only for planning and communication, and after morning duties are complete.
  8. We’ll give you >= 5 minutes of firm cutoff / turn in time: you may choose to honor it on-time or lose the device for the day.
  9. During travel the rule is ⅓ device time; ⅔ for reading / social time; no devices within :30 minutes of transition.
  10. It does not go to school with you. Have a conversation with the people you text in person. It’s a life skill.
  11. You are responsible for the replacement costs or repairs. It will happen, you should be prepared.

INTEGRITY AND RESPONSIBLE USAGE

  1. Do not use this technology to lie, fool, or deceive someone. Do not involve yourself in conversations that are hurtful to others.
  2. Do not text, email, or say anything through this device you would not say in person.
  3. Do not text, email, or say anything to someone that you would not say out loud with their parents in the room. Censor yourself.
  4. No porn. Search the web for information you would openly share with me. If you have a question about anything, ask Mom or Dad.
  5. Do not send or receive pictures of your private parts or anyone else’s private parts. Protect your reputation, especially in cyberspace.
  6. Turn it off, silence it, put it away in public. Especially in a restaurant, at the movies, or while speaking with another human.
  7. No daily streaks – don’t be a phone slave. Live your experiences. They will be stored in your memory for eternity.
  8. Leave your device home sometimes and feel safe and secure in that decision. Be bigger and more powerful than FOMO.
  9. Download music that is new or classic or different. Take advantage of that gift. Expand your horizons.
  10. Play a game with words or puzzles or brain teasers every now and then.
  11. Heads up. See around you. Stare out a window. Talk to a stranger. Be bored… and let that make you creative.  Wonder without googling.

You will mess up. We will take away your device. We will sit down and talk about it. We are on your team, and we love you more than your devices do.

Signed with love – Dad  _____________________  Mom  ______________________
Max  _________________________   Ben  _______________________

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The contract approach might seem a bit formal, but it facilitates buy-in and reduces the more stressful seat-of-the-pants “negotiations” (really arguments) that inevitably result from Phone Wars.  And in many instances, the boys have pointed to the contract to push back and justify more device access… fair ’nuff, a deal’s a deal.

 

Rhine to Rhone

(Editor’s note: let’s start the day with an extract from Max’s journal…)

July 3: “Today we drove to Zermatt.  Our biggest stop along the way was the Aletsch Glacier, the biggest glacier in Europe.  We had lunch up top before taking the cable cars IMG_7703down.  We drove the rest of our way to Zermatt.  We have to camp outside the town because no cars are allowed inside the town.  We set up, and Ben and I played with the racquetball before we had dinner.  Afterwards we played charades, cards, and exploding kittens before we went to bed.”

Thanks Max…a concise summary of the day!  Time for Dad’s color commentary…

Lauterbrennan to TaschWe took a chance yesterday, barrelling along Brienzersee, past Reichenbach Falls – the scene of the cataclysmic final battle between Holmes and Moriarty, and up into the rain.  Our plan was to camp atop 7,000’  Grimsel Pass.  Ascending the north slope, dutiful rain splashes off our windshield, rolls into the Rhine, spins turbines and generates the power that drives Germany’s robust export economy before flowing – spent – into into the frigid North Sea.  A few inches across Europe’s continental divide, the clouds are fewer and lazy mist dew-drips down into the Rhone, where it waters wines before bathing in the Med.  It’s the story of Europe…

IMG_6759We summit that divide at dusk and can’t see much through the howling mist.  I manage to find a sheltered, level paved parking spot, so we back in and batten down the hatches.  It’s pleasantly cool as rain showers tickle Ueli – I love the sound of rain on the roof.  

IMG_6756After a solid sleep we wake Monday to some sun, and grand, crisp panoramas.  I’d chosen a good nest, sheltered leeward of the carved summit rocks. I quietly make some coffee, slip out and stroll the summit, then lure Sue out for an expanded tour of the craggy trails and glacial tarns.  Soon the sport cars and bikes arrive – this is grand touring country, with sleek hairpin twists tempting and alpine views rewarding early rising leadfoots.  I’m one of them, but must temper my need for speed as Ueli bears precious cargo.  One can dream…

Down the mountain we zig zag to the foot of the Glacier du Rhone, then follow the milky water southwest for an hour to Fiesch, where we park Ueli and hop on the Fiescheralp-Eggishorn cable cars.  At the Eggishorn peak it’s a broody mix of clouds and sun bouncing off the craggy summit, and we’re lucky to finally get the clear views of Aletsch glacier that we were denied in Jungfraujoch.  To the south we can even see our next highlight – the Matterhorn.

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A half hour down the Rhone and through Switzerland’s Valais wine region we turn south at Visp and work our way up the skinny  Mattertal valley.   Our base for exploring the IMG_6841Matterhorn and Zermatt is the pretty streamside Alphubel Campground in the town of Tasch, conveniently located a short walk from the last train station before car-less Zermatt.  We love the quiet Swiss campgrounds – no generators or boom boxes here, just quiet campers on grassy pitches.  After picking a spot with good views, space and wifi, we set about dawning the awning, table and chairs, dump blackwater and shower.  Sue and I let the boys reconnect with friends and games while we stroll into Tasch to buy tomorrow’s Gornergrat train tickets and groceries.  Along the way I find a baseball hat that matches my greying hair… with it’s diminutive Swiss logo it’s got a nice balance of color and character… I expect you’ll see it often in future pictures.  

 

Eiger Dreams

IMG_7535This last June morning we took our time to pack, dump and roll south towards the famous peaks, falls and canyons of the Bernese Oberland.  It’s a delicious drive – burrowing through emmental mountains, along bubblegum blue glacial lakes and chocolate layer cake mountains dusted with powdered sugar.  The weather holds long enough for us to enjoy an hour in Interlaken, where the skies IMG_7539rain only paragliders.  But we want to be farther from crowds and closer to nature, so push on to Grindelwald, at the foot of the man-eating ogre, Eiger.  IMG_7554A road closure made finding our Gletscherdorf campground challenging, but a little persistence and an unintentional town tour later we parked in a lovely pitch below the stony beast.  We have to settle for Eiger dreams as clouds and rain obscure the ogre’s infamous north face.

IMG_7670There’s no point in ascending into the cold wet mountains and we lack layers so lay low and ply downtown to hunt down down jackets (phew).  Ben rests while we hike and bike up to town… then we split the shopping and scouting duties.  With our cogwheel train departure point and parking identified and the rain picking up, I wheel back to camp, set up the awning and plan around the weather.  Soon Sue’s comfort food coats our bellies, and a fun Irish family has pulled in next door, so we chat and mix a bit before setting up for dinner.  

IMG_7658July breaks like November.  Undaunted by the soggy grey, we batten down the hatches and roll the RV down to the Grindelwald Grund bahnhof for the cogwheel train ride to the “Top of Europe” – Jungfraujoch.  I’m disappointed to be missing the famous Jungfrau region views and hikes, but the trip up to Europe’s highest station is still fun, and at the summit there are plenty of diversions including Ice Palace, Aletsch Glacier views, Kitschy “Small World” style Alpine Sensation room, the Sphinx observatory and viewing platforms.  

IMG_6680By mid-day we’re back down in camp.  Weather will deny our Jungfrau hikes, but we have Wifi so catch-up on homework & travel-planning.  Late in day the Martins roll back in from their hike – Irish are better accustomed to the wet – and it dries enough for Jim to teach us a little about their national sport Hurling.  I’m IMG_6710embarrassed to admit I know nothing of it.  Like a true Cork hurler, young Jim’s quick with his stick.  Eventually Max and Ben emerge from their digital dungeon and join in the fun, which evolves into a 4-man football game until the dewy dark of the midsummer’s night.

IMG_6721Soggy Sunday we rise, bid adieu to the Martins, then roll west to the next canyon in waterfall-laced Lauterbrunnen.  There we reunion with Maria, a young Spanish adventurer whom we met while trekking in Nepal at the beginning of our gap year travels.  Maria’s a good example for the boys – she’s parlayed an EE degree IMG_6746into a PhD and a globetrotting career providing engineering and business development services in medical devices… and still finds time to hike, climb and explore the world.  Based in Baden, it was good of her to shake off Saturday night revelry and drag herself out to hang with us Sunday.  

IMG_7696IMG_6728Lauterbrunnen is beautiful!  Like Yosemite the glacial valley sits between sheer cliffs.  Water and BASE-jumpers spill over the vertical canyon walls into the lush meadows below.  We stop briefly to admire Staubbach Falls then find a lovely parking spot and share a picnic and IMG_6743lunch with Maria below Trümmelbachfälle.  The gardens below the falls are a lovely mix of flowers, trees gravel and grass.  Through the entry gate I’m expecting IMG_7679another tall fall but instead Trümmelbachfälle is like a vertical slot canyon, with the water cascading and carving tortuously down a mountainside crack.  The Swiss applied their ample tunnelling experience and cut a stairway in, through and around the mountain so visitors can view the falls from various angles and elevations… it’s a wonderfall riot of water on rock.  Afterwards I’d hoped to hike but settle on strolling near the top of the canyon…  guess I’m still the stamina master ’round here.

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Next summer he’ll be my co-pilot.

With the day done we return Maria to the train station, encourage her to visit us in Tahoe, then point the RV east towards Grimsel Pass.  It’s a wet, windy drive but this nimble Fiat chassis makes the drive a pleasure… in fact it’s such a fast climber – so nimble, svelte and efficient – that I’m going to nickname it “Ueli” in tribute to Switzerland’s legendary speed climber Ueli Steck.IMG_7691

Going Mobile

Tuesday morning I felt well enough to take an easy family hike outside St Emilion, past ruins and over vineyards.  We’ve got a 5PM flight so take so pack at a leisurely pace and plan a slow-ride west to the Bordeaux airport.  Good thing – massive rainfall flooded the route and turned our 45 minute drive into a 2 hour slog… but I enjoyed it since we padded our travel time.  We got the easyJet booking right and had a flawless flight across france to Mulhouse-Basel.  There our next host Volker awaited chauffeured us a pleasant 45 minutes across the historical Alsace Rhine River plain to their home in Ehrenkirchen, near Freiburg on the western edge of the Black Forest.

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What’s the catch?

We’re entering an exciting new phase of our trip.  Somehow I managed to negotiate a motorhome exchange: Simone and Volker will use our 26′  Class C RV “DeRig” for two weeks through the Sierras, and we’ll drive their 24′ RV for two weeks through the Alps.  DEAL.  Expensive Switzerland would otherwise bust our budget: touring via motorhome gives us a rolling kitchen, free lodging and cheap transport all in one package… and I get to be outdoors, demo a different RV and have a spontaneous itinerary.  We have a rough Alpine route mapped out and have noted a few preferred campgrounds and parking spots, but we have zero reservations. Watch the police and the tax man miss me, I’m mobile.  Alps RV Tour

Arriving at Volker and Simone’s Ehrenkirchen home in southwest Germany it’s sunny and hot, and we learn that this is the region’s banana belt.  We’re welcomed with local beer then a feast on the deck.  Their athletic children Enya and Elias are still in school so it’s a busy evening of feeding and parenting.  Soon enough we get a preliminary tour of the RV, and sleep in it on the street for a night so we can settle in and work out some questions.

IMG_6605Wednesday there’s another healthy, hearty feast.  While our boys gorged on grains and wifi access, Volker led me on a thorough tour of his motorhome and we did a short training drive out to a local dump facility.  We’re delighted with his 2012 Adria Matrix Axess – the design is so much more integrative and intentional than our boxy Class C… it makes American motorhomes feel primitive.  My favorite features include a ceiling drop-down bed, top-hinged windows that can be opened in rain, pulldown screens and pull-up shades providing varying airflow and privacy, integrated interior window, optional suction cup-mount insulated reflective window shades, tidy spill-proof little “suitcase” style black-IMG_7517water tanks that can be emptied into public toilets, ample fresh and grey-water tanks and very functional solar… all packed into a lightweight 24’x 9’ package that’s shorter, narrower, nimbler and quicker than our rolling design dinosaur.  Time to upgrade?

We return to load the family and clothes into the RV and toodle over to the local town to stock up on food and – since rain is in the forecast – waterproof shoes.  Better to shop on the German side of the border as we expect Swiss living to be expensive.

IMG_7421 - CopyIt’s a pleasant but wet drive through the tunnel-ridden Swiss-cheese hills to our first stop in Lucerne, where Sue’s graceful and gracious friend Rita awaits us next to our Transport museum meeting spot.  We consider our options and opt to spend up to stay at a very conveniently located Lido RV camping site, drop the RV then jump in Rita’s Audi a3 for a traffic-clogged drive back to central old town parking.  Rita’s brought along a gift bag with an umbrella, fidget spinner and other useful goodies, and tours us through the rain to the Lucerne train station where we buy a Swiss Half Fare and  Family Cards to defray the IMG_7472astronomical costs of rail and cable car transport.  Ben now has my sinus infection so we hurry over to a local restaurant where he can rest and take on fuel.  After a lovely and too-short evening Rita returns us to the RV where we set up and sleep.  
Early Thursday I slip out and onto Volker’s bike for a quick tour of the Lucerne sites we missed in last night’s rain: Lukas Ahorn’s mournful 1820 lion of a monument to Swiss soldiers lost during the French Revolution; the medieval ramparts of the Museggmauer city wall, the covered bridges Spreuerbrücke and Kapellbrücke, and of course the lakefront itself.  

Back at the RV Ben’s pretty sick, so Sue, Max and I let him rest and hop on a bus down to the old town, where we book a 1 hour lake tour on the new Panorama boat.  The town is beginning to swell with package Chinese tourists; they’re fun, happy company and well represented on our tour.  Afterwards we stroll old town and grab some overpriced, mediocre Thai take-out before bussing back to Ben for a tabletop lunch.  There’s just enough time to squeak in a visit to the neighboring Swiss Museum of Transport, with its ample and interactive displays of planes, trains and automobiles… spaceships, boats and transport infrastructure. It’s a fantastic museum, worth half a day.  

Bordeaux: a Crude Culture.

IMG_7130Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey may be gone, by the Millhoff-Rock troupe carries the tradition on.  Our comical cast of characters rolls with the spectacle and efficiency of a circus. This transition Sunday it’s early up, clean and secure HomeExchange flat for departure, eat, out, rental-car drop-off, taxi into France, breakfast, board TGV, homework and blog en route, disembark Bordeaux, bag drop at new rental car, power-tour Bordeaux, back to rental car, drive to St. Emilion.  Boom. Done.  

3 hours into France and I already miss Spain.  We are still in Basque country and there’s no passport or customs check to mark the French border, yet the changes are palpable.  French Architecture is immediately ambitious – even little Hendaye hints at Bordeaux’s boastful baroque and beaux arts-itechture.  The French countryside opens and flattens to lush green fields and as we approach the fabled vineyards.  The wine and bread are better, but the demeanor’s meaner.

IMG_7081Navigating the smoke, smells, and dog droppings, we find our Hendaye TGV train as smelly inside as out, so bide time on the platform.  Once rolling IMG_7080some fresh air flows, so we can focus on the pretty countryside to Gare de Bordeaux St-Jean.   After dropping bags in our rental car we avoid parking logistics and taxi north to the grand sites past kids walking on water in the Place de la Bourse’s playful mirror pond.  First stop: crepe fuel.  Then we stroll through the heat wave to take in the baroque Opera House.  The stone plazas are exposed and hot, so further north we find relief wallowing in the mist spit from the Girondins monument magnificent marine mares as they trample Ignorance, Lie and

Vice. Reversing course through the old town we soothe our own beasts with gelato, then wander for water.  Most shops are closed on Sunday, but eventually we find some on the margin of the cleaned up Tourist district. Upon leaving we stumble into some of Bordeaux’s formerly famous grit – a gaggle of drunks are fighting over shade.  Admonished for leading my family astray we take a safe but boring path back to the rental car.  Sometimes the road is less traveled for a reason.

IMG_7155With my Garmin, the car’s GPS and Max all working the navigation it’s a relatively easy drive through thick traffic out of Bordeaux and into the quaint wine town of St. Emilion – an oenophilian orgy between our Spain and Alps tours.  A nasty sinus infection will steal that experience for me, but it’s a pretty little place to relax and recover, and Sue will revel in the food and wine… if not the service.  We’ve booked a cute apartment in the center of town, so have great walking access and can easily avoid the day-trippers.   

We arrive early evening to find the town and our apartment delightful: clean and bright, looking good at 1.5 millenia.  Still sick, I find a short stroll through town exhausting so Ben keeps me company and I rest… Max and Sue enjoy dinner out.  After a monday morning pharmacy stop I take the day off to rest while Sue and the boys expand their explorations… I wasn’t witness to their adventures but Sue’s camera was:

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By evening I’m feeling well enough to go out, but the staff at our chosen restaurant is so deliberately rude that we choose to dine in – what a shame.  Tuesday we have time for a stroll outside the town’s walls before the clouds burst and we wade our way west to the Bordeaux airport.  EasyJet is a pleasure compared to Ryanair, and a timely, uneventful flight carries us across france to Basel-Mulhouse airport where we begin a new adventure… a motorhome tour of the Alps.

Noble Donostia

It’s time to explore San Sebastian’s heart.  After a morning of homework and trip planning, we load into the Golf and navigate through labyrinthine streets to old town parking… driving in Donostia is an adventure.  But there are plentiful underground lots and after a few exciting wrong turns we manage our way into the Broadway lot near the old town market, an obligatory stop for Sue.  It’s functional but lacks the charm of older Spanish markets… the action here is above ground strolling between Pintxo bars.  

We dip into one mid-day at the Constitucion Plaza and find a seat upwind of the inescapable human fumaroles.  It’s a pleasant square, lined by numbered rooms once used to view the bullfighting matches it held.  Today it serves as a place to gather, celebrate and occasionally protest, though I expect that happens less now: EU membership favors tribes as much as nations, and the Basques have bettered themselves economically – the separatists seem sated.

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After lunch and a meander the old town’s streets, pause for churros and chocolate, and climb the hill past old baterias, a british graveyard and on up to visit the crest’s castle and its musty history museum.  It’s a warm hazy day but the views are still impressive as we descend to the harborside aquarium, always a hit with the boys.  Donostia’s is as much a maritime museum as an aquatic zoo, with impressive displays of seafaring history, ship artifacts and models… but down below the lobsters are huge and the oval-shaped “Nautilus Room” with circling sharks, rays and fish does a nice job of conjuring up a Captain Nemo experience.

Friday morning I slipped out for a a short bike ride around noble little Kristina-Enea park.  Upon my return the family is up for the day’s adventure – a journey north across the border to the French Basque town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.  En route I take the opportunity to preview our transfer for Sunday…  we plan to manage down travel costs by refueling then dropping the rental car at the San Sebastian airport, taxiing across the border to Hendaye for a 9AM Sunday train ride north to Bordeaux.  What could go wrong?  Plenty… so we’ve learned to test the transfers.  Check.

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Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a pretty little seaside town famous for harboring Basque corsaires as well as for hosting the marriage of Louis XIV and Spain’s Maria Theresa, an important contribution to the end of the Thirty Years’ war.  We caught the town during the annual celebration of its namesake Saint, with locals and balconies festooned in Basque red and black.   The town is packed but we manage to find central parking.  Our first stop: a waterfront crepe.  With full bellies we walk the seawall and stroll the Rue de la République from Place Louis XIV to the beach. There are plenty of sugary temptations here… well presented at lovely little shops like Maison Adam.  Sue and I could stroll and eat all day, but our pants don’t fit anymore and the boys grow bored, so we eventually work our way back to the car and home to Donostia.  

There we leave the bored boys in the flat and finally venture out for a date night of famed San Sebastian Pintxos.  Sue has all the best spots tagged on Google Maps… some are closed, others are too crowded to enter, but we squeeze in to a few winners and enjoy the salty, rich vertical tapas, local wines, and friendly street vibe.  San Sebastian is lovely by night.

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We’ve got one more day here in Donostia so go for the greatest hits… the Funicular Monte Igueldo takes us from La Concha beach up to Parque Atracciones Monte Igueldo, the quaint old mountaintop amusement park a bit like a tiny Tibidabo.  I’ve managed the boys expectations so they enjoy the corny horror cave and quaint mountaintop rollercoaster.  The bumper car sessions are generously long, which makes them a huge hit.  Sue gets to relax and take photos while we boys bash the testosterone out of each other – everyone wins!

 

The surf report looks good so in the afternoon we head back over to Zurriola beach  for one last European beach day.  Then to cap it all off we drag the boys back over to the old town so they can share in a bit of the Donostia’s evening magic and Pintxos culture.  It’s

Saturday night and the town is alive… we stumble upon a traditional parade, talented street painters and a beautiful sunset… a fine and fitting finish to a wonderful 6 weeks in Spain.  We’ll be back.IMG_7071

Basque Country!

IMG_6346Leaving old Asturias we continue west across Spain’s Green Coast into Basque country.  Some of the oldest European inhabitants in our home state of Nevada are Basque sheepherders… they left a written record of their presence as carvings on Aspen trees throughout Northern Nevada and in the Tahoe basin.  There are pockets of Basques there still, rough and rural as their meaty meals – centered around various cuts of lamb served up family style.  

Here in Europe the Basques are old too.  Their Euskara Batua tongue is the only surviving Pre-Indo-European language in Europe.  Here the similarities end… Europe’s Basques are modern, sophisticated and industrial.  And their cuisine is anything but rough – Basque Pintxos are the globe’s hottest haute cuisine, and little Donostia (San Sebastian to you foreigners…) punches well above its weight with over 15 Michelin stars – among the highest star-per-capita density in the world.  To keep my wife and life happy we’ve budgeted ample time here in Basque country.  

IMG_6762The Sirocco-driven heat wave is still building, so we skip Cantabria towns and opt for a visit to the air conditioned comfort of the Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao.  Approaching through town the building’s leaps out of the Ria del Nervion like a steelhead shaking a tight line.  The giant flowered terrier out front sets a playful expectation, and the Museum fulfills it – with experiential exhibits teasing and pleasing visitors through color, shape textures and materials.  It’s a delightful and surprising place, worth a visit.  

Ours is as short as the day is hot, as we must move on to another fun encounter, a meet-up with our old friend Jay Saltzman from our CitySearch glory days.  Jay and his wife Rosa have made time to share IMG_6790a late lunch with us in their hometown of Getxo, a Bilbao ‘burb on the eastern banks banks of the Ria de Bilbao’s mouth.  They’ve chosen a family-pleasing spot and we enjoyed a few hours revisiting glory days and exploring each others’ family lives… and we hope they’ll come visit in their next trip to California.

IMG_6360Driving an hour west on Spain’s excellent highways brings us to Donostia – (aka San Sebastian), where our HomeExchange host Raul’s mother Nina welcomes us with a bottle of Txakolina and a tour of our home for the week. It’s a modern and tidy 3BR flat; a short drive down Donostia’s chaotic streets to the beaches and tourist sites. Sue and I slip out for groceries and immediately get lost… thank goodness for Garmin and Google.

IMG_6364On Wednesday the heat wave continues, so we coast to the coast and survey Donostia’s famous city beaches: Zurriola wins for its superior surf.  Good call… the boys are occupied all day IMG_6801bodysurfing, and the beach is full but big enough to handle the crowds, and it’s a friendly family vibe… all are welcome here.    We found some friendly beach-side burgers for lunch… and of course the boys collapsed once home so Sue and I escaped for some modest Pintxos at a local bar.

Ribadesella & The River Sella

IMG_6332Beach day!  But first we we want to share those harbor views with the boys so in the morning we stroll back out to the breakwater’s end, stopping en route to read local Asturian history in some bluff-side paintings and to watch the fishermen reeling in big IMG_6334baitfish.  Then we climb a few hundred feet up to the bluff above where we can see it’s going to be a great beach day.  The sun is already scalding, so we keep moving, finding shade where we can on our way back down to the flat.  

There we don our swim suits, gather towels toys and cold water, then hop in the golf for the short drive across the bridge to the broad beach at the River Sella’s mouth.  The Bay of Biscay is cold but bearable – Santa Cruz temperatures, with 3’ swells providing great body surfing.  The boys stay for a few hours until the chill drives them out… sun baked they return for more.   It’s a perfect family day at the beach.  

Back home and hungry we tour the restaurant options, settle on the family-friendly place below our flat, and share salads, scallops and a local specialty chocobo – a cholesterol bomb of veal wrapped in ham and cheese, then breaded and deep-fried.  No wonder these basques are stouter than their Catalan cousins.  We’ll work it off during our River Sella paddle tomorrow…

Monday we’re up and out around 10:30 for the short stroll down to our outfitter’s office.  There they hurriedly pack us into a van and off we trundle to the put-in at Arridonales.  Now we understand the hurry – it appears every school in northern Spain is on the river today, and our guide service rightly wants to get us on the river ahead of the hordes.

IMG_6342(Editor’s note: Here’s Max’s description of our paddle…)

Today we went kayaking along the river Sella. The kayak outfitters drove us up to the launch point where we were surprised to find several very large groups of school kids, ranging from middle school to college. Our driver rushed us to the front, shoved us into kayaks, and pushed us down a ramp into the river. We quickly paddled downriver in an effort to get away from the kids, only to run into even more groups. For a half hour or so we paddled through masses of inexperienced paddlers splashing their way down, or sometimes up, river. After we eventually cleared the kids, we enjoyed some nice floating time down river, enjoying watching other people crash IMG_6343and get stuck in the shallow sections that only we seemingly knew how to avoid. Once we got to the pullout point. We loaded up in the van and returned to Ribadesella. From the kayak shop, we walked to the beach where we enjoyed some peaceful wave time. After an hour or so it looked as if it was going to rain so we packed our bags and walked back to the apartment. We did some homework and had dinner inside as we looked out our window and enjoyed the thunderstorm that we had predicted earlier at the beach.

Thanks Max.  With half a day left we returned to downtown Ribadesella then walked across the bridge and along the Sella’s riverbank to its sandy mouth, where the boys snuck in another hour or two of bodysurfing.  We haven’t seen enough of Asturias, and must race through Cantabria tomorrow en route to Basque country… this quiet Green Coast deserves more time, and we hope to return.

Picos de Europa

IMG_6626Friday we continued west from The Catederals and a brief stop in the little fishing village of Rinlo along Spain’s Green Coast to “true Spain” – the province of Asturias, proud for her industry, rugged mountains, coasts and for turning the Moorish tide.   Our next HomeExchange in the pretty rivermouth town of Ribadesella will be our base for exploring the Picos de Europa, the Sella River and Asturia’s beaches.  We found our flat clean and well located, but less comfortable, with dated decor florescent lighting and a prison cell kitchen… bad juju for Chef Sue.  So out we went for a pleasant stroll among Spaniard tourists – few foreigners here.  The main street is lined with Cider restaurants and outfitters selling River Sella canoe trips and add-ons like parasailing, paintball and sea-doo outings.  We pop into a few to assess our options and decide that we’ll float the river after the weekend when crowds are lighter.

IMG_6631I picked Ribadesella for its proximity to the Picos de Europa, and this hot Saturday seems like a good time to climb up to cooler air.  We wind our way up along the River Sella to Arriondas and scout the put-in for tomorrow’s canoe descent, then continue up the road a few km to bustling little Cangas de Onis.  The Picos de Europa visitor’s center is closed, but a good topo display there confirms that we can drive up to a good trailhead from this eastern park IMG_6642entry.  Croissant in hand we cross the town’s pretty plazas and Roman bridge, but it’s getting hot, so we return to the Golf.  To avoid los mareos Sue takes the wheel, but quickly relinquishes it asIMG_6650 the curves, traffic and bovines are too road-cozy… stressful roads are Dad’s responsibility.  En route we pass proud and pretty little Covadonga, the site of Spain’s first victory against the advancing Moorish invasion.  

IMG_6666Up top it’s beautiful but exposed and hotter than we’d planned.  We camel-up with water then begin our loop hike through a historic mine and around a knoll that separates Lagos de Covadonga from Lago de la Ercina.  The cows here are healthy, horned, big and benign, so we weave through them to the west shore of Lago de la Ercina.  There we find a picnic spot beneath a craggy bluff’s sliver of shade.  Max deems Ben “The Goat Whisperer” as he engages in a “bleet” call and response with other kids scattered in the crags and crevices.  

IMG_6675After lunch we push on around the mountain: it’s not steep but the footing is irregular and the sun is too much for Sue and the boys, so we take breaks at the infrequent shady spots.  Tempers rise with the temperature and pretty soon Dad’s in the doghouse.  I coax the weary travelers on to Refugio Vega De Enol, where Max and Sue can cool down and hydrate up.  Ben and I finish the hike and return down a dirt road in the Golf to find their spirits lifted and all forgiven: Mother Nature’s wounds are best healed by Father Time.  

IMG_6681Back down in Ribadesella we put our feet up for a bit then leave the boys to their devices and sally out to sample Asturias Cider scene.  Here they ferment apples and make a big show of pouring the sour soda with outstretched arms – the longest pour wins.   They even have specially made splash guards to contain the overspray.  You buy a bottle but only the waiters can pour it for you.  They pour just a few ounces at a time and expect you to drink what’s poured immediately… presumably it tastes worse once the aeration has settled.  Or maybe that just creates more opportunities for showy pours.  Either way it’s entertaining but we prefer the Albariños and Verdugos, or a nice little Caña.    

After dinner we stroll out to the harbor’s end to catch a spectacular Atlantic Sunset.  Here near Summer Solstice the setting sun pours through the harbors gap, putting pretty Ribadesella in its best light… we hope you enjoy as we did:

Grace

IMG_6446Graceful Galicia.  It’s politely provincial, swarming with friendly pilgrims and backpackers.  We’ve hit it at the right time, with spring blooming all about but before the summer crush.  Stones, squid, sun, saints… sublime.  

Having a fantastic crash pad helps.  Our home this week is a newly IMG_6522remodeled flat on the upper floor of a family-owned building.  It can’t be easy to remodel an ancient edifice, and as the first guests in the new space we took a little gamble booking the exchange before the remodel.  We got lucky – with fine flair our HomeExchange hosts Suso and Maria eliminated space-wasting hallways and organized rooms around an open, airy kitchen-dining-living room furnished with just the right amount of amenities.  With charming markets and quality local foods, Chef Sue made good use of the fine kitchen.

Thursday night Suso and Maria invited us downstairs for dinner. At 9PM.  Because that’s when you supper in Spain.  I love this place.  It’s been months since we stayed and dined with Karen, Naftaly and Nathan in South Africa; the boys were starved for kid company Suso Maria Aldan & Marina Mosqueraand we parents enjoyed some fresh perspectives from our hosts.  Suso is an empathetic school principal and Maria tested several careers and countries before returning with Suso to Spain and a happy teacher’s role.  Good choices – they both inspire and enthuse.  Daughter Marina is studying hard for finals and worrying too much – she’s going to change the world and prosper.  And charming son Aldan will be a success at whatever he puts his mind to.

IMG_6569Their place was hospital-clean when we arrived so we take extra care to clean up Friday morning before loading into our Golf for half day drive to Asturias.  To break up the drive we head towards Ribadeo on the northern Galician coast to visit Playa de las Catedrales.  It’s spectacular at low tide, and the boys have a barefoot hoot stomping through the tides and sand-floored caves and natural bridges.  The slate walls are lined with barnacles, mussels, crabs and critters, a feast for Sue’s shutter:

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