Friday, October 5, 2012

Seville with Kids, Part 3 - Plaza de Espana, Park Maria Luisa, University Area

Day 3

With still a lot on our “must see” list we woke up around noon and set off to visit Park Maria Luisa, the setting of the 1928 Ibero-American Exhibition where many of the pavilions are still preserved. However, as we were strolling casually through the historic area and enjoying some unexpected architectural gems, it started pouring rain. We ducked into the first restaurant that we saw and were in for another great surprise. The tiny place specialized in local olive oils and the owner suggested we try their “olive oil tasting” which included 4 different oils with various flavors. 

Some were served with bread but one was surprisingly served with ice cream (the oil was orange-flavored). I have never put much thought into my olive oil but after this trip, let’s just say we no longer buy the $9.99 variety from the grocery store.

The rain stopped and we continued on, passing by the Seville University (an old tobacco factory made famous by the Bizet opera Carmen, who was a beautiful gypsy woman working in the factory), lots of little squares and fountains and numerous displays of azulejos (tiny painted tiles that decorated anything from walls, to floors and doors). 

Park Maria Luisa is vast and provides great entertainment for both adults and kids because it allows the kids to run around and discover different fountains, statues and alleys. It is a favorite of the locals as well and you can see a lot of families strolling, riding bikes and taking their kids for a walk. For Chris and I the highlight was Plaza del Espania – the Spanish pavilion designed for the World Fair and an absolute work of art. 

Multiple benches surround the building, each decorated with azulejos and highlighting one area or city in Spain. While we were snapping photos left and right, Victor loved running along the vast square and chasing the birds. 

The rest of the park is also beautiful with a number of features designed by Gaudi and the notable American Pavillion where hundreds of birds come to be fed by people and, if you don’t mind, they will land on your head, jacket or arm. And yes, they do poop, so be careful J

For dinner we were back in barrio Santa Cruz where we found a little tapas place that was not overly crowded and Chris was happy to find a tapa with tripe (typical Bulgarian delicacy) while victor and I were happy to share a bunch of fish plates. 

Fish in Spain is always a great choice for kids and here are many varieties of fresh fish prepared in many different ways. For the more picky eaters, there are lots of cheeses, breads, olives and small salads. I was surprised, however, that Gazpacho soup. Which in the US appears to be a staple of Spanish restaurants, was almost impossible to find in Seville and when we did find it in one restaurant it was very expensive. Go figure…

Seville with Kids, Part 2 - Alcazar, Food & City Tour

Day 2
Woke up late today and had breakfast at Hotel EME (5 min walk from our house) near the Cathedral. This hotel was feature don the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills a few seasons ago when Tamra Barney and her boyfriend Eddie went on vacation to Seville. I was curious to check it out and it totally lived up to my expectations. Bright, airy and modern and it had the best coffee right on the main square. We would make it a habit to stop there each morning for coffee and breakfast while Victor made friends with the girl selling ice cream next to the hotel and got a lot of free samples (she did not speak English and he did not speak Spanish but the two of them hit it off somehow).

Next stop was the amazing Moorish castle of Alcazar. While smaller and less famous than Alhambra, we had heard that Alcazar is the more authentic and the better landscaped one of the two. There was a very short line to get in and we set off on exploring the gardens first trying to give Victor a chance to run around a bit and get tired before we focused on the “more boring” bits inside.

The gardens are amazing, with lots of greenery, flowers, fountains and things to discover. There are azulejo tiles everywhere and while Chris and I were admiring the art of the tiles, Victor was just happy to run and hide behind columns, look into the vents that were connected to underground tunnels and try to make friends with the dozen or so geese that walked around the park.

Inside were the famous golden arches, a breath-taking pool decorated with tiles and some unique artwork.

On our way out we were surprised by a fast-approaching thunderstorm so we ducked into the first restaurant we saw and took the last available table. It was a typical Seville place with jamon (huge chunks of smoked ham) hanging from the ceiling and tables placed so close to each other that you are touching your neighbor’s arm every time you pick up your fork.

The Food
Oh, the food in Seville is to die for. In every single tiny little place that we had lunch or dinner the food was fresh, tasty and unique. We ordered a bunch of tapas and Chris practiced his minimal Spanish (surprisingly, not many locals speak good English but communication usually goes well) and we avoided the rain while enjoying fresh olives, fish and cheeses. I have to say that Victor loved the food there so much that he ate pretty much everything that we ordered and pretty much devoured tons of olives each day. Tapas are perfect for kids of many ages as there is always a huge variety and plates are relatively small so you can try many different things. We noticed local kids eat everything - no pizza or chicken nuggets on offer which was fine by me.

The afternoon we took the Hop On Hop Off bus to take a break from walking and to explore parts of the city that we would not have time to visit in depth. The buses are great as they give you head phones that narrate the journey in your language of choice and you can also get on and off as much as you want for the day. 

We started at the Torre del Orro (Gold Tower), which is the bus stop closes to downtown and the Cathedral, then drove through the modern part of town and along the river (I was actually surprised that the area alongside the river was underutilized and sort of bare) and rode through Traiana – the cure area where the factory workers used to live and often associated with flamenco dancing on the streets, little bars and restaurants and more alternative living. The bus ride put Victor to sleep after a while and we just relaxed and enjoyed the sights. There is really a lot to see in this relatively small city.

Dinner that night was back at Hotel EME who have a smallish but really hip (and surprisingly child-friendly despite the local fashionistas on display) bar area that, despite its small size, prepares amazing food. The tuna salad and the local sushi rolls were all amazing.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Seville with Kids, Part 1 - Seville Cathedral, Giralda & Top Things for Kids

I have always wanted to go to Spain, something about the music, the street dancing, the sangria and the warm people has always drawn me to that place. So when I started my annual “where to go for my birthday” research and noticed the relatively low fares from DC to Madrid, it was on.

We took an Air Lingus direct flight from Washington to Madrid - highly recommend flying into Madrid because many US cities have direct flights and it's easy to take a train from there to many of the major cities. 
In Madrid, we took a cab to the train station and got on the fast AVE train to Seville. I have done my fair share of train travel in Europe but have honestly never been on such a nice clean train. 

Travelling at speeds up to 300 km/hour the AVE is smooth and elegant and your ticket, even in coach, includes a drink and snacks. Chris of course did not want to miss the chance to start the journey with a cervesa (beer) and after several olive plates we all took a 2-hour nap and were in Seville in no time.

I had looked at a ton of hotel options for this trip and finally settled on renting a 1-bedroom apartment right in bario Santa Cruz – the charming maze of little streets, alleys and flowery court yards fascinated me. 

By the time we got to the building, Victor, who did not get much sleep during the flight as he tried to play all the available games on the little personal TV monitor, was starting to get tired and cranky. So we met the manager, got our keys and crashed inside. Here is Victor in front of our apartment building:

Our apartment was tiny (literally smaller than our living room at home) and had a miniscule kitchen with a pull-out sofa and a separate bedroom with a double bed. It did have an awesome rooftop deck though, from which you could see the entire city. 

It was located in one of the typical old-style courtyard buildings which, come to find out, were not as romantic as I thought. Most windows looked into other people’s houses and the courtyard echoed each time Victor ran through it. But we did not plan on spending a ton of time there so it was fine. My recommendation for those visiting Seville with kids is to stay in an apartment if you can find a reasonably-priced one in Santa Cruz or the town center. Most of the hotels we visited were very small, had single beds ans tiny rooms. The larger more corporate-style ones were away from the historic center and would require a lot of travel.

After a few hours of napping it was time to explore the city. First stop – the famous Cathedral. Our apartment was only a 10 min walk to the main city square and by that time it was already around 4 pm so the city was coming to life with lots of people out on the streets. 

The line for the Cathedral was not very long and the inside was gorgeous. There are many individual chambers dedicated to various saints and lot of beautifully painted nooks and crannies to explore. We could have spent hours inside but of course Victor got bored after about 30 minutes so we decided to have an adventure and climb to the top of the bell tower. It is a long way up (I believe 30+ floors) but it’s a ramp and not stairs so it’s manageable even with little kids or strollers. 

It is quite crowded in both directions but there are amazing views from many view points along the way. Victor loved the climb up and was excited to reach the top by himself. 

When we got to the top we sat down to catch our breath when all of a sudden all the bells started ringing (apparently every hour on the hour, we were told) – this was literally the highlight of the trip for Victor and throughout the entire trip he was fascinated by the bells ringing throughout the city, day and night.

Seville with kids:

1) Seville is a very walkable city – both locals and tourists walk everywhere, distances in the tourist part of town are not very long and there is lots to see everywhere. Actually some of the most interesting things you will see will be off the guidebooks.

2) Travels with kids of any age seems really easy and kids are well accepted everywhere. You see kids of all ages including babies late at night, as late as midnight. Strollers can do anywhere including churches though high chairs are not abundant. However, kids are welcomed in restaurants. Be aware though that in some restaurants tapas are only available if you sit at the bar and I did not see any little kids doing that.

3) If you go there for a week or less it is not worth trying to adjust to the local time zone. We woke up around 11 am each day and seemed like the cafes and restaurants did not open until noon anyway. We also did not go to bed until at least midnight and the central area of town, including most of the restaurants were still open at that time. 

Things my son found most fascinating:

-    Ice cream – there are ice cream vendors on pretty much every street corner and the variety of ice cream was amazing. We made an adventure our of tasting as many kinds as possible each day. At one point Victor had 4-5 ice creams per day

-         -  Bell towers and churches – not something you see in the US and a fascinating sight and sound for kids of many ages. There are so many churches in Seville that you hear bells every 15-30 minutes.

-    - Horse Carriage rides – few US cities offer those and the ones in Seville are quire romantic and a good way to see the touristy part of town

-        -   The doves in front of  the American Pavilion in Park Maria Luisa – literally hundreds of them who are not afraid to land on people’s heads, hands and shoulders. If you bring some food they will be all over you. Can be a bit scary for little kids but victor had a blast.

-         -  The maze in Alcazar – cute little maze allowing the kids to run around a bit without any real chance of getting lost