Under the Maltese Sun

The copious amount of sunshine was just one of the many pleasures of our recent trip to Malta. Needless to say, I sunburned a little. We spent three wonderful days on that tiny island and saw it all… well, almost.

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Day 1 – Off-roading and jaw-dropping vistas

The theme of Day 1 really did seem to be off-roading. We had rented a little manual Kia Picanto, and Tex adapted to driving on the left side rather seamlessly. But our GPS directed us to take some very rocky paths (I won’t even call them roads). Somehow, we made it out alive and laughing and with somewhat higher blood pressures. Anywho, our first stop was to see St. Paul’s Island on the north side of the island. This is where they claim that Paul and Luke shipwrecked. You can read about it in Acts 27. While this stop wasn’t initially part of our itinerary, it ended out being one of my favorite things. Not only is it incredible to think of the apostle clambering out of a wrecked ship right there, but it is also a beautiful display of God’s creation. And as a cherry on top, we were the only souls there to soak it in that morning.

 

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A view of St. Paul’s Island

From there, we drove down to Mdina, an ancient city near the center of the island. This was the capital of Malta during the time of Paul and is likely the town where Paul stayed for much of his time on the island. St. Paul’s Grotto (technically in the town of Rabat, but within walking distance of Mdina) is the underground site claimed to have been where Paul founded the first Christian community on Malta. We purchased tickets at the Wignacourt Museum, which gave us entrance to both the Grotto and St. Paul’s Catacombs, as well as some WWII bomb shelters. The catacombs are early (4th century AD) Christian burial grounds, made up of innumerable tunnels and cave-like rooms. We had never seen any catacombs before, and these were remarkably fun to explore. One of the special pieces of architecture down there was called an Agape table. It was at this table that certain funerary feasts took place in honor of the dead.

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One more memorable stop in Mdina was an adorable tea garden, called Fontanella Tea Garden. It sits on the edge of the city’s high wall and overlooks much of the island. We ordered tea and tried a couple of their popular cakes, a strawberry meringue and a lemon cheesecake. I was quite pleased with the quick service and decent prices of this little establishment.

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A splendid tea
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From our table in the tea garden…

A bit after noon, we hopped into the car and headed towards the Blue Grotto on the southwest coast of the island. We were amazed at how easy it was to cover pretty much the entire island of Malta in one day, well really only 2 hours, of driving. Once we arrived and parked, we headed out to buy tickets for the much-sought-after boat rides into the Blue Grotto. I can only imagine the crowds there in the summer, but early February proved to be the perfect time to visit. For only 8 Euros each, we rode in a small motorized fishing boat out into the crystal Mediterranean and cruised through several grottos, including the Cat’s Cave, Reflection Cave, and of course the Blue Grotto. The light turquoise water that you can see in one of the pictures is caused by white sand on the sea floor reflecting light back up through the water. This was truly breathtaking.

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Heading into the Blue Grotto

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Our last destination for the day was the southern tip of the island, near Marsaxlokk. We took in some sun and watched the waves lap against the stony edge of St. Peter’s Pool. While I do wish it had been warm enough for us to swim, we were happy to be there with fewer people. We also visited the Salinas salt pans, one area of many on the island which have been used since the Phoenicians first established them. Still today, throughout the summer months, there are families that tend to the salt pans and harvest the sea salt after the water has evaporated.

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St. Peter’s Pool

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The Salt Pans

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After a very long walk to a highly-reviewed and very much closed restaurant, we stopped at a little seaside joint in Marsaxlokk to eat. Tex had quite a plate of pan-fried calamari, and I had some yummy fish-filled ravioli.

Day 2 – The Maltese Capital

We spent all of Sunday in the capital city, Valletta, which boasts of forts, gardens, and long hilly streets. The two main things on our agenda were Fort St. Elmo and the Palace Armory. And of course, some renowned pizza.

To start off our morning, we began walking along the city wall towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens. I think we could have stayed in the gardens looking across the Grand Harbor all morning and never have gotten bored. Plus, it helps to have a walking encyclopedia like Tex to tell you all you need to know about the Great Siege which happened there.

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Looking across the Grand Harbor
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Upper Barrakka Gardens

We continued along the wall until we reached Fort St. Elmo (which was closed for another couple hours), and then walked into the old city center to the Palace Armory. The Armory seemed to be a fairly extensive collection, exhibiting everything from real Knights’ suits of armor to early guns. By this time, we were famished and rolled on down to Sally Port Pizzeria. I ordered the La Vallette pizza with Maltese sausage and goat cheese, and Tex had the Genovese pizza with pesto, parma ham, and “too much green stuff” (haha!). There weren’t any seats available at the restaurant. So we carried our pizzas down to a bench by the fort, tore the napkin in half, and devoured the pies while hungry spectators eyed us.

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Next, we finally made our way to the historical Fort St. Elmo. Some crazy things happened there. During the Great Siege, where the Ottomans were surrounding the Knights Hospitaller who inhabited the island, the Ottomans succeeded in taking Fort St. Elmo. The Ottomans subsequently slaughtered the defenders and floated their bodies across the Grand Harbor on wooden crosses. Some Knights who still remained in another fort, which I’ll discuss later, answered their foes with cannonballs made of the heads of Ottomans. Pretty gory and sad.

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View from the fort

To end the day, we roamed the streets of Valletta, poked our heads into a couple of churches, and grabbed some pastizzi to take back to the apartment. Traditional Maltese pastizzi are crunchy, flaky pastries filled with either ricotta or mushy peas. When still warm from the oven, these little things are delightful!

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Inside the magnificent St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Day 3 – A Place Called Victory

Well, actually, it has been called Birgu for its entire history and was renamed Vittoriosa about five centuries ago. Depending on who you are talking to, the town could be called either of those names. Personally, I like Vittoriosa, because it seems a fitting name for such a gloriously lovely town. Vittoriosa is built on one of the main peninsulas in the Grand Harbor and is known for its strong fortification, Fort St. Angelo. The town had a very medieval feel, with pale yellow stones paving the streets and covering the sides of houses. The Fort itself was more charming than an Italian villa. So charming that I told Tex he should become a Knight so that we could live there. (There is one resident Knight of the Order of St. John who has the privilege of doing so!)

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Defending Fort St. Angelo

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This is where I wanted to live in the Fort…

Fort St. Angelo was the fort I mentioned above where some knights remained after St. Elmo was taken in the Great Siege. It was here that the knights prevailed, hence the town’s name Vittoriosa.

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A quiet courtyard in the Fort

To wrap up our time there, we visited the Malta at War Museum, where we donned some hard hats to explore another underground network of bomb shelters. Malta was very heavily bombed by Axis planes during World War II, because of its critical location in the Mediterranean. The museum provided a unique look into the lifestyle of Maltese civilians during the War. Finally, we stopped in the town main square at the Café du Brazil, which served up our favorite meal of the trip… Maltese rabbit ravioli!

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That is the long and short of our most recent adventure. Thank you for taking the time to read it 🙂

Penny-Pinching in Strasbourg

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In October, we took a little camping trip over to the Black Forest and spent a day on the other side of the border in Strasbourg, France. I expected Strasbourg to be very German. And it is… But it certainly has a French feel too. Anywho, I thought I would share what we did and how we pinched a few pennies along the way.

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Crossing into Petite-France

Penny-pinching tip #1: Take your car. And take your tent. This has become one of our favorite ways to travel in Europe. We have camped in the Wachau Valley of Austria, the Netherlands, and now the Black Forest. Camping does not have to limit you to outdoor activities (though that is something we enjoy). A tent can also be your base from which to explore the bustling towns of Europe. Heck, you can still pack a nice sweater or a dress. I’ve done it. Europeans tend to pamper their campgrounds, which does annoy me sometimes, but I know a lot of people might prefer it. There are also Airbnb campsites, which is what we did this time. And we ended out spending for two nights probably half of what we would have spent on one night in a hotel. As an added bonus, you get to take in all the beauty of nature.

Additional advice: Park at park-and-rides in larger towns and cities. And then take advantage of the tram or bus system. This is usually cheaper than paying for parking in the city center… and less stressful, in my opinion.

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We happened upon this lovely church, after getting caught in the rain.

Penny-pinching tip #2: Go out for one big traditional meal, instead of three meals a day. This is a tip we also implemented in Ireland. I would especially recommend making lunch your big meal, because menus tend to be cheaper. So real question– how do you get by on one restaurant meal per day? My answer– bring snacks from home to tide you over and/or go to the grocery store and cook for yourself. On our Black Forest trip, I made these pumpkin energy balls, packed some homemade biscuits, and brought along a couple other snacks. So breakfast was covered, and the snacks pretty much got us through lunch (I must admit that they were supplemented by a few “pain au chocolats” that we picked up from a bakery as soon as we got into Strasbourg).

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Mouth-watering French pastries

The meal that we ordered that night in Strasbourg still makes me laugh. One of the must-have regional dishes is called “choucroute,” French for sauerkraut. It’s ironic because we live in Germany, the land of limitless sauerkraut, and yet on our little excursion into France, what did we order? Why, choucroute! I have never seen such a massive pile of sauerkraut. They served it warm with a few different pork cuts and potatoes. It was quite hearty and delicious.

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You might not be able to tell… but there is a huge pile of sauerkraut underneath the meat!

Alternative to PP tip #2: Street Food! This is another of my and Tex’s favorite ways to eat plenty without breaking the bank.

Penny-pinching tip #3: Be a low-maintenance traveler. This is one that I am still working on… Ahem, yes, I did ask Tex to buy us some [DELICIOUS] lemon shortbread cookies at a specialty cookie shop. But honestly, it is not very difficult to spend an entire day just wandering the streets of a lovely European town, without spending money. Soak in the architecture, even of commonplace houses. Feast your eyes upon bakery displays. Walk on into that beautiful cathedral or through that peaceful park. Be a person who can appreciate things without having the thing. I’m preaching to myself here.

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Strasbourg’s charm did not disappoint. We promptly found the cathedral, which was stunning. It actually may tie (with St. Peter’s Dom in Regensburg) for my favorite cathedral. I am so glad that we decided to wait in the long line to go inside. Entry was free! We meandered through the streets surrounding the cathedral. All kinds of signs and banners decorated one of the streets, and countless bakery windows were filled with every manner of sweet treats and breads.

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Inside the lovely cathedral
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These beautiful stained-glass windows!

Next, we decided to visit the most famous and historic part of town, Petite-France. Half-timbered houses, adorned with flower boxes in the windows, lined the edges of the canals. We strolled over cobble-stoned footbridges and gaped at the quaint beauty surrounding us.

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Half-timbered buildings and canals in Petite-France

Those are all the penny-pinching tips that I can think up right now. Hopefully, I’ll have more soon ♥

Irish Fisherman’s Pie

Yesterday morning, I woke up craving the Fisherman’s Pie that Tex ordered while we were in Ireland. He said, “Well, make it!” So I did. We both think the homemade version is as good, if not better, than the restaurant version that we tried a few weeks ago.

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I looked and looked for a simple recipe, without the frills of white wine, but that included all the right seafood too. I couldn’t find one. So this recipe is my best effort at recreating the traditional dish. One of the greatest things about it is that it serves 6-8 people for about 20 Euro… And considering that this thing is chock-full of seafood, I’d say that’s a win!

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INGREDIENTS

Seafood Filling:

  • Approx. 2 pounds Fish, boneless and skinless (I used about 1 pound of salmon and then equal parts shrimp and white fish, like cod or haddock)
  • ½ large Onion, peeled and diced
  • 4 Tbls. Butter
  • ½ c. Flour
  • Milk
  • ½ c. Cheddar cheese, grated
  • 2 Tbsp. Parsley, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Potato Topping:

  • Approx. 10 small-medium Potatoes, peeled and cut
  • 4 Tbls. Butter
  • ½ c. Cream
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

WHAT TO DO

1) Preheat oven to 350°F. If fish is frozen, then defrost it first.

2) Place fish/shrimp and onion into a large saucepan, and pour in milk until fish is just covered. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to medium and let simmer for 2-3 minutes, until shrimp turns pink and fish starts to look cooked. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes. Strain milk from the fish and onions, and save milk for sauce. Break up the fish into smaller, bite-size chunks and set aside.

3) In an empty saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and then whisk in the flour to make a roux. Cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the strained-off milk and stir well. If sauce begins to look too thick (what you want is a thick chowder consistency), then add more milk. Once the sauce is simmering, stir in the cheese. Add parsley and season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

4) Meanwhile, prepare the mashed potatoes. Place potatoes into large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and cook until a fork easily pierces the potato. [Tip: Place a wooden spoon over the top of the pot to keep the water from boiling over.] Drain out the water. Add butter and cream, and mash the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper.

5) Combine the sauce with the fish and pour mixture into 9×13 pan. Thickly spread mashed potatoes over the top. (Extra potatoes may be eaten separately!). Bake in preheated oven for approximately 25 minutes.

Our Emerald Isle Adventure

We recently got back from the country I’ve long dreamed of—Ireland! It was the trip of a lifetime, even though we were only there for three and a half days. I am so thankful we had the opportunity to go and that the Lord provided beautiful sunshine-y weather while we were there. Here are the highlights… Actually every moment was a highlight… I’ll try my best to keep this concise.

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My number one photo from the trip… Aren’t those cliffs amazing?

Day 1—Galway

We picked up a rental car from the Dublin airport, and Tex very promptly learned how to drive on the left side of the road in a right-side driver’s seat. Let me just say, he did amazing. I had envisioned it being very stressful, but it was not. Even Tex would agree. It takes a lot of concentration at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy (Note: I am speaking from my very extensive experience as a passenger seated on the left side).

Arriving a couple hours later in Galway, we made a beeline for food on Quay Street. We slid into The Quays Bar and Restaurant just in time to take advantage of their afternoon lunch menu. It is a quirky, rustic Irish pub and happened to be pretty quiet while we were there in the late afternoon. Tex ordered the roasted lamb plate, which came with a smorgasbord of yummy sides (including some very tasty sautéed greens). And I had the Irish seafood chowder with brown bread. This was when we first realized our love for Irish food!

The rest of the evening was spent browsing the sweater market nearby, grabbing (expensive) gelato further down the street, and strolling along the water’s edge. Galway is a cute and buzzing town.

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Day 2—The Cliffs of Moher and the Burren

Leaving our Airbnb fairly early in the morning, we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher around 8:30am. That was the best possible time to go, I think. We had the lush green cliffs to ourselves. It is hard for me to even know how to write about them, because they were one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. Tall, windblown grass lay in wave-like patterns, rolling hills met with sheer-cut cliffs, and blue waves turned white as they beat the rocks far down below. There is a mortifying aspect too… Just knowing that one step too close to the edge could be your last. If you ever get the chance to go, please be careful, and please take me with you!

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We drove over to the nearby town of Doolin for lunch at a pub, where we also got to experience watching a rugby game with the locals. After fattening up on Irish beef stew and fish and chips, we took the waitress’s advice and stopped by the Doolin Chocolate Shop. We spent the afternoon making a loop through the Burren and stopping at various places. The Burren is such an interesting region and not exactly what I expected to see in Ireland, though it is gorgeous. It’s basically massive rocks. Massive hills made of massive rocks. We stopped first in Kilfenora where we picked up a map and nosed through a beautiful cemetery of Celtic crosses. A little further down the road, we found Poulnabrone, an ancient portal tomb. It was similar to how I imagine Stonehenge, though it was just four rocks total and not very busy with people. We thought it was fairly impressive, especially given the fact that it was built about 5000 years ago! Our next stop was the Burren Perfumery. It was a cute little shop but honestly wasn’t a lot to see. Driving along the coast that evening, we made a couple more stops, including Dunguaire Castle and another cemetery in the shadow of a crumbling church, and then turned in for the night.

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The cemetery at Kilfenora…
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And the Church
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The rocky Burren
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Poulnabrone portal tomb
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Another cemetery
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Dunguaire Castle at sunset

Ooh, and I forgot to mention that early in the morning we spotted a bright double rainbow just as the sun was rising. And then we actually drove THROUGH it! We had no idea that was possible and were just waiting to see a leprechaun jump out. Ha!

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The Burren at sunrise

Day 3—Aran Islands

Though I might have thought that nothing could compete with the prior day’s experience, our day on the island of Inis Mór certainly gave the Cliffs of Moher a run for its money. We expected a day of rain, rain, and more rain. But the Lord surprised us with a gloriously sunny and almost warm day. We had one fierce, five-minute shower, and that was all.

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Anywho, we took the morning ferry from Rossaveal out to the Aran Islands. We promptly rented bicycles and took off along the low coastal road. Inis Mór, the largest of the three islands, was larger and had more sites to see than I had expected. We didn’t have time to hit them all. The main attraction is the ancient, semicircular fort called Dún Aonghasa. Here’s why it is so impressive: 1) it was built around 1100 BC and is still intact, and 2) it was built directly on the edge of a 300 foot cliff. Tex was impressed by the “Chevaux de Frise,” which is a network of sharp stones placed around the fort as a defense. The views from within the innermost wall of the fort are breathtaking. I felt as if I were in another world. And we got to watch this rain cloud come straight toward us over the wild Atlantic waves. What a thought to imagine living there 3000 years ago, with the blustering wind and raging ocean and secure walls of stone and verdant grass all in one heart-stopping place.

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Dun Aonghasa

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This view from within the fort doesn’t do it justice.

After the fort, we decided to make a stop at the medieval ruins known as the Seven Churches. That was where we found the oldest gravestones I’ve ever laid eyes on—from the 800’s and 900’s AD. Crazy! From there, we started the long cycle up the high road. It was tough, but we found some horses to pet/laugh at along the way. We finished off our day on the island with some shopping for Aran sweaters and wool-knit goods. The ferry took us back to the mainland (if Ireland can be called that…?), and we made our way back into lively Galway for supper. Tex had an AMAZING dish called Fisherman’s Pie that was similar to Shepherd’s Pie but with a seafood chowder-like filling. I had a hamburger that supposedly contained black pudding.

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The Seven Churches and cemetery
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We made friends with this sweet horse.
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And this guy had somehow gotten up ONTO the fence and was just hanging out!

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Day 4—A Bit O’ Dublin

To wrap up our time in Ireland, we wanted to get a taste of the capital city. While we did enjoy it, I am so very glad that we chose to spend most of our time near Galway instead. Dublin has some lovely churches, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral. But we didn’t feel like paying the money to go in, so we enjoyed the architecture for a moment and moved on. We grabbed a bite at the South African food chain Nando’s and moseyed on down to Trinity College. It would be cool to go back there and see the Book of Kells. But that’s really the only thing I feel like we missed.

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Christ Church Cathedral

All in all, this is a trip I would take again in a heartbeat. The outdoor wonders were more stunning than I ever dreamed. God did a mighty work when he created that country.

36 Days in Spain

¿Qué hicisteis el fin de semana pasada? This was the common topic of conversation for a whole month of my summer. As you may know, I spent 5 weeks studying sophomore-level Spanish in Seville. Well, sophomore-level Spanish means only one thing—verb conjugations. We spent a decent chunk of time practicing the preterite tense, especially asking questions like the one above, “What did you all do last weekend?” (Please do note the use of the vosotros/”you all” verb ending which is a necessity in Spain, but is obsolete in Mexico!) Let me just say… I had four thrilling weekends while I was there, and I would love to tell you what I did. Yo tenía cuatro fines de semana emocionantes cuando estuve allí, y me encantaría escribir sobre eso.

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View over Seville from La Giralda tower

PEOPLE

As a backdrop to the rest of my musings, you must know that the Spanish people are simply lovely. My host mom, Nancy, was the first to demonstrate this. One of my favorite times of the day was our late-night supper and learning more about Nancy and her husband, as well as about Spain and Andalusian culture, through our many conversations in Spanish. At first, these conversations were intimidating. I didn’t know half of the words that I wanted to use. But Nancy was so gracious and patient as we tried to describe what we meant to the best of our abilities. I remember one time, as Nancy was serving us eggplant, I described the vegetable as “una planta de huevo,” literally “plant of egg.” How confused she was! And for good reason. Haha!

Aside from my host parents, I also got to know a few of the Spanish tutors who worked with our class. These guys and gals were fun to be around and were a wealth of information about the language and how to navigate life in Seville.

PLACES & THINGS

The Alcazar and Catedral in Seville— According to our guide, approximately 100 grams of Christopher Columbus is buried in the Catedral.

Italica Ruins—These were some neat ancient Roman ruins, the birthplace of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian.

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The arena at Italica

Bullfight in Seville—This was a very interesting experience. And I’m glad to have seen it, just so I know what it really is. However, I don’t know if I would sign up to go again, as it is rather gruesome and sad. For those of you who think a bullfight is mainly just a matador saying “Olé!” (as I did), here are the nitty-gritty details… The bulls are raised in an environment such that they never see two-legged animals (aka humans) until they charge into the ring. They are colorblind animals but have a keen sense for movement, which means that it’s actually the waving motion of the cape, not the bright color, which entices them. In the first “tercio,” or round, the matador and his accomplices (I forget what they were called) engage the bull in a series of cape-waving and charges. Then the picador comes out, riding on his horse, and stabs the irritated bull in the upper neck muscles with a lance. As the second tercio begins, the bull can smell his own blood. The banderilleros run out on foot and stab the bull in that same neck region, using colorful, small, barbed sticks. This part looked terrifying, since the bull was already incensed and the banderilleros were relying solely on their ability to escape by running faster than the bull. By this point in the fight, the bull’s neck muscle has been significantly weakened. The third tercio begins as the main matador makes a few skillful passes of his cape (called the “muleta”), keeping one foot in place if he is top-brass. Finally, after some dramatic gestures and facial expressions and yelling, the matador goes for the kill and guides the curved sword down through the neck into the chest cavity towards the heart. In the entire evening, we saw three matadors each kill two bulls. Some fights were obvious successes for the matador, accompanied by loud “Olé’s” from the crowd and the waving of white handkerchiefs. A couple of times the kill was not very clean, and the crowd showed their disapproval by whistling at the matador.

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The Alhambra and the Royal Chapel in Granada—The Alhambra was another beautiful example of Islamic and Western architecture in combination. Granada was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain to surrender to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs. Those same two monarchs are buried in the Royal Chapel… And by the way, did you know that Granada means “pomegranate” in Spanish?

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One example of intricate tile work
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A courtyard in the Alhambra
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Another courtyard…

The Mezquita (Mosque) in Cordoba—Apparently, this iconic building has Roman origins, was later converted into a Muslim mosque, and eventually acquired an enormous Catholic cathedral nave right smack in the middle of all the arches.

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One of my favorite pictures… Heading into Cordoba!

Malaga—A group of girlfriends and I visited over a free weekend. We hit Picasso’s museum and, of course, the beach.

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La Rabida Monastery and Palos de la Frontera—This monastery was where Christopher Columbus stayed before he left for the New World. The monastery itself was just beautiful. Plus, not far from there, we were able to see life-size replicas of Columbus’s three ships. They were much smaller than I had imagined!

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The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria

Cadíz beach—Tex and I thoroughly enjoyed this beach trip. We went in the morning to avoid crowds and took a picnic. It was pretty windy, but that didn’t keep us out of the water. The sand was some of the best my toes have ever felt.

Madrid and Toledo—The highlight of Madrid, in my opinion, was the Prado Museum of art. After a semester of taking Art Appreciation, it was pretty cool to see the actual Las Meninas by Velazquez, Goya’s Saturn (though creepy), and Van der Weyden’s The Deposition of Christ. On the last day of the program, we visited Toledo, only a short trip from Madrid. I want so badly to go back to Toledo again (but this time, take Tex with me!) during the celebration of Corpus Christi. We were there at the end of the week’s festivities. The entire town was dressed up—colorful banners draped from the windows, flower baskets and garlands hanging over the streets, bows and streamers tied in the trees. All of this, added to the town’s already medieval ambiance, bewitched me. We also walked to the edge of town, where we stumbled upon the Don Quixote Trail. How fun is that?! He was “from” the Toledo area and “adventured” along this trail. If we go back, I would love to road-trip along it. Sorry in advance for the uncanny number of photos…

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Celebrating Corpus Christi in Toledo
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From the Don Quixote Trail in Toledo
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How cute is this?!

EXPLORING SEVILLE ON MY OWN…

Las Setas—This is the modern icon of Seville, and its name actually means “the mushrooms.” If you go, there’s a lively market down below… including a stand crawling with snails! It is also a great place to get to know some local Sevillanos. So great, in fact, that our teacher thought it would be nice for us to go there and interview people in Spanish. It was tough but made for a great memory.

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La Plaza de España—Tex and I made a stop here in the heat of the afternoon to ride a boat around the little canal. The architecture and tiles are beautiful!

“Yemas” at the Convent of San Leandro— I’m so glad I had a free morning to hunt down this gem. After hearing about a few different convents that make and sell their own sweets, I decided I had to try some. The sisters of this particular convent are completely cloistered, meaning that their direct contact with the outside world is limited. Thus, to sell their egg-yolk and sugar sweets (called “yemas”), they have devised a rotating door with shelves. I waited for a few minutes, until I finally heard a voice ask what I wanted, then I ordered and placed my money on the shelf. She spun the door, around came my bag of treats, and then next my change. I never saw a soul.

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The quality of this picture isn’t great, but I had to show y’all the rotating door 🙂

El Torre del Oro— The Tower of Gold

Shopping the streets and the markets (Mercadillo Historico del Jueves—Thursday Flea Market in the Feria)

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Antique tiles at the flea market

FOOD

Pisto con huevo- This is basically the Spanish version of ratatouille, though in my opinion, much better… It’s tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper, onion, and garlic all stewed together with a fried egg on top! I’ve already made it a couple of times at home, though it’s hard to replicate Nancy’s recipe.

Freshly squeezed orange juice- My roommate and I discovered this reasonably-priced treat in one of the many cafes on our first walk to campus. And we enjoyed it many more times after.

Churros con chocolate- Thanks to a sweet friend who wanted to celebrate my birthday, I was able to finally try authentic churros with chocolate at the Virgen de Lujan Chocolatería.

Tapas- gambas (shrimp in a garlicky butter sauce), albondigas (meatballs), calamari, salmorejo (a Cordoban twist on gazpacho… made of tomatoes, bread, and garlic). Nancy first took me out for tapas at Bar Bugarín, one of the neighborhood favorites. And then, it was so good that Tex and I made a trek across town for lunch.

Chicharrones!- This deserves a whole paragraph. If you are from Texas, you’ve probably had pig skins before, but you have NOT had Spanish chicharrones. Tex and I tried them at a market (Mercado Lonja del Barranco) that my host mom recommended. It was a memorable food experience. They are meaty, fatty bits of pork, deep fried so that they truly do melt in your mouth, and coated in a delectable spicy salt. Needless to say, I raved and raved about them to Nancy, who later bought me a large package of the tasty morsels. I ate nearly the whole bag in one afternoon and had to confess to Nancy as she was taking us out for our final “family” supper that evening. And I sadly do not have a picture.

Paella- (with a LOT of seafood… Mom, I still prefer yours.)

Berenjenas con miel- Fried eggplant topped with honey. This was another of Nancy and her husband’s specialties.

Gelato– Sometimes multiple times a day. Specifically, the flavor “Nata” (cream).

Tostada con jamón- Toast drizzled with olive oil, spread with pureed tomato, and topped with thinly sliced Andalusian ham. This is the quintessential Spanish breakfast.

And that’s all folks! Thanks for taking the time to read my long-winded post ❤

Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart

Anyone remember the old cartoon Anastasia movie? I made Tex watch it with me a few weeks ago, because he had never seen it. The result: I’ve now had the song “Paris (Par-ee) holds the key to your heart” stuck in my head for basically a solid month, in anticipation of our trip to the City of Lights.

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Let’s start with the gritty truth. Paris is crowded as all get-out. And it has been romanticized beyond any hope of actualization. And ultimately, it (along with any other place) does not hold the key to your heart, or at least not mine. I was reminded once more of our human expectations for the world to satisfy the longings within us, and how they will always remain unfulfilled. Only when we turn to the Maker of all and the Lover of all mankind, can we truly live abundantly and be made whole.

That being said, we did have a lovely time in Paris over New Years. I’d like to share with you some of the things we did…

Day 1: Versailles

>> After stopping for the night at a French gas station and bedding down in the back of our car (which was its own little adventure), we made our way to the Royal Palace of Versailles. What a grand place. It was filled to the brim with paintings and sculptures, rich floral draperies and rugs, fine furnishings and lavish chandeliers. Ever since I first read about Versailles as a child, I have wanted to see the Hall of Mirrors… Being there and imagining it full of great lords and ladies decked out in their finest– wow.

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The Hall of Mirrors

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>> Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the day was the fact that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were almost completely glossed over. Though we saw painting after painting of Louis XIV, also called the “Sun King,” and others much more obscure (to us, anyway) in the royal lineage, I truly don’t remember seeing a single one of Louis XVI and only a couple of his famous queen. The audio guides also said next to nothing about them. We were able to walk down about a mile from the palace to the Petit Trianon, where Marie Antoinette spent most of her married life. It too surprised me. This queen known for saying, “Let them eat cake,” lived a much less frivolous existence than I had ever imagined. The two-story house boasts a very minimal ground floor with empty stone walls and a tiny but tasteful upstairs suite as sleeping quarters. During her time as queen before the Revolution, she had a small, fairy-like hamlet built along with a small functioning farm. This was within walking distance of her home, and was delightful to see.

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At Marie Antoinette’s hamlet

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>> The two of us were famished by the end of the day’s constant walking. So we stopped at a small bakery on our way to the car. That bakery is where I found my new favorite pastry: pain au chocolat. This croissant-like bread filled with soft, but not completely melted, chocolate might be Tex’s new favorite too. So stinkin’ good!

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Day 2: The Louvre and a full-course French meal

>> We learned the public transportation system fairly quickly, as our hotel was in the nearby town of Meudon. This has become one of our favorite things in all the big cities. Using buses and trains to get from one place to the next still feels like a grand adventure, and yet is also far less stressful than actually driving through the center of Paris with a confused GPS. We bought a 2-day city pass for both of us, which allowed us to hop on any subway at any time. That is definitely something we would do again.

>> We spent nearly 7 hours perusing room after room in the Louvre museum, and still didn’t see everything. I had no idea how huge that place is. It’s hard to even know what to write about it, because there was so much. Some of our favorite exhibits were the medieval and Renaissance Italian paintings, the ancient Egyptian artifacts (and real mummy!), and the ancient Persian art. It is just amazing how old some those things are and how well they have been preserved. Tex really loved seeing all the historical depictions of various battles and military heroes. My personal favorite was Carpaccio’s The Sermon of St. Stephen, which I would highly recommend looking up since I don’t have a good photo of it.

 

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A real Egyptian mummy… Sorry if that is too much.

 

>> For our big French meal, I had done hours and hours of research, probably too much honestly. I had originally decided on a restaurant called Benoit, but some planning complications made us change our mind to Chez Paul. You can see their menu here. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall French bistro in the Bastille district, and was more reasonably priced than others with more limited menus. For an appetizer, we both ordered escargot… and loved it! The snails came without their shells, which made us joke that maybe we looked too American for the “shell-on” experience. Ha! For our main dishes, Tex ordered a veal kidney dish and I had rabbit legs stuffed with goat cheese. Mine was delicious, and Tex liked his, so I won’t go into any more depth on the kidneys… Blergh! For desserts, we got profiteroles with chocolate sauce and the apple tart, both of which were very tasty.

 

 

Please forgive me for the poor food photography going on… But I had to share!

Day 3: The Eiffel Tower and a stroll through the city

>> A chunk of the morning was spent waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower. I really think we could have saved a decent amount of time if we had bought tickets ahead of time. Now we know. But seeing the the tower’s structure and going up to the top was actually more impressive than either of us were expecting.

 

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Our view from the top!

>> We used the rest of the day to see as much of Paris as we could. The Arc de Triomphe was accompanied by Nutella crepes, Notre-Dame Cathedral was followed by a peaceful walk in the gardens behind it, Sacre Coeur was an adventure by night that involved about 10 flights of stairs.

 

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Sacre Coeur in Montmartre district

>> At midnight of New Year’s Eve, we wanted to see the Eiffel Tower lights twinkle. So, we prepared a small French picnic for our supper. We walked into a “Fromagerie,” or cheese shop, and walked out with some of the yummiest cheese I have ever tasted, a pretty strong Gruyere. I wish I really knew how to talk about cheese, because this was seriously wonderful. So we stuffed that into the backpack, along with some fresh baguette and lemon-flavored chocolate from a 400-year-old chocolate store. Somewhere along the way, we ran across a Christmas market, which was selling a yummy-looking potato and cheese dish. We decided to try it– “tartiflette” they call it. Finding a bench near the Eiffel Tower but away from the crowds of people, we sat down to our small feast. This was one of my favorite moments.

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Tartiflette

>> The final moments of our time in Paris were spent in a crowd of at least 100,000 people waiting for the midnight twinkling of the Eiffel Tower to usher in the New Year. A few seconds later, we were speed-walking to the nearest metro station in hopes of beating the masses. Which we did.

That is a rather long summary of our trip! Thank y’all for reading, and I hope that this new year will be one of blessings for you.

A Whirlwind Trip in Southern England

England. It’s a place I have dreamed of seeing since I was little bitty. My history lessons about Henry the Eighth’s 6 wives (“Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived!”) and then my love for Jane Austen’s romantic tales set in the English countryside and my more recent overload of Downton Abbey episodes have been a few of the reasons that I have longed to go see the country of England for myself.

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It’s the place that the Pilgrims left in search for a different home… the place where sooty chimneys and thick London fog concealed the sky from little children in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Burnett’s A Little Princess… the place that Alfred the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and C.S. Lewis (yes, he belongs in this list!!) all called home. If you asked Tex, he could give you an entire other list of great knights and generals and admirals who also flew the English flag.

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To be in this land of stories, both true and fictional ones, was thrilling. We are already talking about when we can go back. I’ll give y’all a little run-down of what we did, and hopefully include some descriptions for your imagination to feast upon.

>> We took a C.S. Lewis walking tour in the City of Dreaming Spires, more commonly known as Oxford. I am so glad we did this. Starting at the famous Blackwell’s Bookshop (which was super fun to peruse), we walked from place to place listed on this itinerary to witness several of the places Lewis frequented. My two favorite stops were the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin where he preached his sermon “The Weight of Glory” and the Inklings’ favorite pub which they called “The Bird and Baby.” The town of Oxford is just beautiful, and had a very different feel from any of the other English towns we explored.

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The house that C.S. Lewis stayed in when he first arrived in Oxford.

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>> We had high tea! I hadn’t ever known there was a difference between just plain old afternoon tea and “high tea,” until a sweet friend recommended it to us. So, we found a place called The Grand Cafe in Oxford that actually offers high tea all day (which, I realize, is probably not the most proper way to do it, but it was very convenient!) and at a much more reasonable price than many of the London venues. From delicate smoked salmon and egg sandwiches to yummy biscuit-looking scones and sweet petit fours, we left feeling as if we had eaten a big meal rather than just an “afternoon tea.” The teas really were delicious. I had a hot peach tea and Tex had Earl Grey (we actually ordered vice versa, but then our orders came swapped, and we were both surprisingly pleased). Poor Tex was comforted by the sight of other men in the cafe… I don’t think this English tradition was exactly his cup of tea, but he was a trooper.

We hopped onto a train that took us from Oxford to Portsmouth via Southampton. I had found some good deals ahead of time through the website Trainline.

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>> In Portsmouth, we explored Lord Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory. This was at the top of Tex’s list of things to see. And it was really neat. This ship was built in the mid 1700’s, and is open for visitors to tour all the levels of it. With the audio guides, we were able to walk through the timeline of the Battle of Trafalgar, but also to glimpse what naval life was actually like at the time. Down in the dark, musty hold of the ship, I was amazed by the hundreds of huge barrels, which were how food was transported and stored. Tex said that he was most impressed by the military functionality of the entire ship, even down to the captain’s quarters.

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>> We gobbled up our very first meal of Fish and Chips! Just across the street from the Historic Dockyard is a cute, blue restaurant called The Ship and Castle. After finding a seat and making our orders (by the way, we were thrilled to find that there is free tap water most places in England!), we struck up a conversation with an older Englishman. Turns out, he’s a huge Buddy Holly fan and was so excited that we were from his state. The English people are so very friendly. It seemed like anywhere we went, a kind English voice would pipe up and ask us a question or make some honest comment.

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Then we caught yet another train, this time from Portsmouth to London, for the last leg of our trip. The London train stations are massive, just for anyone who is wondering. I’m talking nice shops on the second story and food courts on the ground floor. For some reason, I was not quite expecting that.

>> We enjoyed an evening in London. Navigating the underground stations, stopping for a hot bite at the Southbank Centre Food Market, meandering over to Trafalgar square– these are the main things we did on our first night in London.

>> For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to book an Airbnb in the suburbs… I won’t go into all the details, but here it is in a nutshell: walking through the dark for a mile in a strange town, a misunderstanding about how to read English addresses, no WiFi, only a couple of screenshots of the map, two wonderful English gentlemen who directed us to the right house, nobody home, figuring out how to open the lockbox, and four shining eyes glaring at us as we step inside. Thankfully, they were nice cats.

The next morning began our full day in London!

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>> We ventured through the Tower of London. This was one of the coolest stops we made. It is still hard for me to wrap my mind around its multifaceted significance over the past 10 centuries. Built in the time of William the Conqueror, the Tower has seen the mysterious disappearance of Edward IV’s two young sons (whose skeletons were found under a staircase in the Tower), the execution of Anne Boleyn (the second wife of Henry VIII and mother to Elizabeth I), the imprisonment of Elizabeth before she became queen, and the torture of Guy Fawkes. Morbid, I know. But the Tower has also played an important part in the minting of the country’s money and housing of the Crown Jewels. For almost one thousand years, the English royalty used the Tower of London for these and many other purposes. One quick note: we got to see the Crown Jewels with our own eyes! I hardly knew such enormous diamonds existed.

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>> We ate a truly English meal at a stately pub called The Hung, Drawn, and Quartered. Guess where it was… Right across the road from the Tower. Ha! It was much nicer than it sounds. Here, we feasted on lamb and mushroom pies, which were downright tasty. We both agreed that it was our favorite meal of the trip. I want to learn how to make them!

>> We spent the rest of the day speed-walking past as many as we could of the most iconic London sights. We strolled over to see Shakespeare’s globe, stepped into St. Paul’s Cathedral, walked all the way to Buckingham Palace, and finally found Westminster Abbey and Parliament right as the sun was setting. The only place we slowed down to a more leisurely pace was in the Covent Garden Market, where we peeked into all sorts of delightful little shops. Tex and I enjoyed the bustling city even more than we thought we would. And honestly, we hardly scratched the surface. Now that we have a general idea of where things are and how the transportation works, I’m ready to go back and experience more. Already!

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

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Wow, that’s a lot of buildings. Maybe next time I’ll have more variation in my pictures!

Have I mentioned how wonderful it was to be in a land where English is the common language? Oh my. We were able to actually order what we wanted at restaurants and to understand where a given train was supposed to stop. Not to mention the daily necessities of “Excuse me,” and “How much?” and “We’re ready to pay.” I had no idea how much I’d missed the English language!

Love y’all!